Better, more powerful devices have made it possible to tell better, more powerful visual stories. These days, content marketers are discovering that infographics can help express essential information and complex concepts.
Infographics (aka information graphics) are becoming an essential tool for visualizing concepts that may otherwise be locked in databases and spreadsheets. In the hands of skilled designers, infographics strap a jetpack to your data and help it reach a wider audience across multiple devices.
Data visualization is nothing new, but we’re seeing an emergence of innovative techniques for showcasing and sharing ideas. Some infographics are a single static image, while others are complete interactive stories.
For content marketers, infographics represent another way to provide value and engage with their target audience or existing customers. Brands must consider new and creative ways of creating utility, and infographics are becoming a cornerstone of strategic and tactical plans.
I caught up with Ross Crooks Co-Founder And COO of Column Five Media, an agency with offices in Newport Beach, CA and New York that creates visual stories for brands. With his partners Josh Ritchie and Jason Lankow, Crooks co-authored the book INFOGRAPHICS: The Power of Visual Storytelling, an essential guide for anyone interested in visual content strategy. The book is packed with examples and explanations that will help you get started building your own infographics.
BUDDY SCALERA: First, tell me about your book Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling.
ROSS CROOKS: We wrote this book primarily for the people and teams creating content for brands and publications today. It helps them understand how to approach content strategy, as well as guide them in the best practices for ideation, research, content development and design of infographics and other visual content.
Who might want to read this book?
This book could be helpful for anyone from a journalist to a CMO. It is really a guide for anyone involved in the process of developing and distributing visual content.
We attempted to divide up the chapters by our main areas of expertise – each of us writing several sections. As with our roles, there was certainly some overlap. We worked together to try to keep things as consistent as possible.
You all work at Column Five, a company that you describe as “a leading creative agency specializing in infographic design, data visualization, and social PR.” How did the publication of this book change things for Column Five?
It certainly sparked a lot of conversations with clients who have read it, as well as within the industry. The book helped provide a pretty comprehensive framework for they recommendations that we typically give clients. I am sure the additional exposure it brought to the company didn’t hurt either.
Seems like a lot of work went into this book. How long did it take to complete, considering you obviously have day jobs?
We took a pretty aggressive writing schedule, and completed it over about 4 or 5 months. It was certainly a challenge to keep up with our normal work, but we have a really good team that supports us. However, the writing was perfectly timed with our build-out and move to a new office, my wedding, and the development of a new course at Columbia University [Visualization of Information]. Those were certainly some of the longest weeks we have worked.
Many people think of infographics as some sort of modern tool of the digital age, but you shared evidence that infographics have been around a bit longer than that. What did you discover about the history of the information graphic?
There are definitely a lot of old examples that you come across when doing research, but I think it is more about recognizing that humans have always used, and responded well to visual communication. Once you look at it from that perspective, there are nearly infinite examples to discover. Some of the old political graphics are really neat though – as they originated many of those visualization types to help tell their story. I can imagine that seeing visualizations of information that was not readily accessible to the population must have felt enlightening.
It seems that this book is not just for designers, but for a broader audience of communicators. Many of my readers are content marketers and content strategists. Clearly infographics can be viral-ready assets that help people discover information and lead them to seek out more content. How can forward-thinking content marketers and content strategists introduce infographics into their content plan?
The key is to not get hung up on the format, and focus on what makes all content good.
- Create content that provides value to people first, not the brand. Do sound research and find an interesting story to tell.
- Be authentic with your voice and tone. Remember you are not selling with content — you are engaging.
- Be visual. Visuals of any format (photos, infographics, video, etc.) appeal to people to draw them in, and are capable of communicating information very quickly in a way that is understandable and retained by viewers.
You demonstrated that visual storytelling is important. What should brand marketers keep in mind as they think about visual storytelling, including infographics?
The most common mistake I see brands making is talking too much about themselves to try to get brand value out of the content. It is an understandable temptation, as content is an investment. However, it defeats the purpose of editorial content in the first place. Talking about yourself is what advertising and sales collateral are for.
Find topics that are loosely tied to your brand or industry and look for interesting insights or stories you can tell. If you have a fun and interesting culture that people want to know about, then you have a pass to talk about yourself a little bit more. However, the vast majority of brands don’t fit this description.
In my experience, I’ve noticed that infographics are discovered in social channels as static images. Is this your experience as well? Or do you think people are discovering infographics directly on owned channels, like a branded website?
Yes, this type of content is typically spread widely via social channels, often beginning with the brand’s owned social accounts. Earned media is another key distribution method – as journalists are always looking for good content. If your content is too brand-promotional, your chances are very slim of a journalist being interested. Branded websites rarely have significant readership without being driven from other sources. The exceptions would be legitimate brand publications like AMEX Open Forum and GE’s Visualizing.org.
We just talked about static infographics. You spend some time in the book talking about interactive infographics. With better technologies and devices at our disposal, do you think we’ll be seeing more interactivity? Or do you suppose that the static image will continue to be the more common format?
I think that people will become more adept at creating interactive as well as animation work. However, this development has a resource and time cost associated with it, so people need to see return on that investment. There are some inherent advantages to interactive infographics such as the layering of rich data sets and engaging interfaces. But there are also some disadvantages in that they are more difficult to embed, which reduces re-posting and browser and device compatibility can increase usability considerations.
Ultimately, the investment needs to be weighed with the return, but it is also important to tell each story in a format that is best suited to the information you are displaying. This could be photography, mini-graphics, infographic, slideshows, video, etc.
How can marketers measure the impact and ROI of the infographics that they create?
That is ultimately up to each brand and their unique success metrics. A brand can know what a site visitor is worth by calculating the conversion rates at various funnel stages and what the average value of a conversion is. If the exposure is not on an owned channel, then the ROI of content should likely be measured in interaction (comments, shares) and brand lift.
Speaking of measurement, you included some interesting data about retention and engagement related to visual content. You provided some interesting examples of how our brains process patterns. How do you use this “preattentive processing” that we have as humans to create better infographics?
It is really about understanding what our visual system processes and responds to. The pre-attentive attributes themselves are quite intuitive in that they are basically visual differences like color, size, and orientation. When designing an infographic, attention should be paid to what is being used to encode the most important information. The attributes should be used to highlight these comparisons.
You included a lot of examples of infographics. Clearly these are some of the finest examples of visual communications, which is why you included them in your book. But what makes an infographic good or bad?
- Original concept
- Sound research
- Strong copy
- Appropriate hierarchy
- Accurate visualization
- Intuitive interaction
- The opposite of all these things.
What kinds of mistakes do people make with infographics?
Same as above.
I was impressed with how you interpreted and visualized Vitruvian principles and related this concept back to infographic creation. How have your clients responded to this as a framing device for communications?
Yes, it has been helpful in discussing the specific values that certain elements of a graphic provide.
In bad infographics, are you likely to see one of those triangular points missing? For example, do you see a lot of beautiful infographics that lack utility?
Yes, there are all combinations of those existing and lacking in the world of infographics.However, your individual objectives may require more emphasis on one vs. another.
There’s a lot of data out there, which you discuss in your book. How often do you see data or facts and start to mentally design an infographic to make it work better?
All the time. I see data, people.
What advice would you give to a young designer interested in infographics?
Read Stephen Few’s books for data visualization best practices. Then learn to code.
Does anyone on your team get out to conferences to make presentations? If so, we can we see you speak?
We do fairly often. My co-founder Jason Lankow is speaking at The Thread Summit in 2014.
Where can we find out more about you and your team?
What’s next for you and your team?
We will be focusing on thoroughly enjoying each others’ company while creating interesting things that help good brands save the world.
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