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The 7 ½ Steps to Successful Infographics

Mar 25, 2010 In Process By Sarah Slobin

You know when you’ve been doing something for a long time and it gets ingrained? For me, that’s infographics. I’ve created a lot of chartage over the last 20 years

Take a look: Here’s me when I started at the New York Times, where I was a graphics editor. I worked there for 15 years, on all the news desks, with the investigative team, and ran the biz section graphics desk.

Sarah's Badges

The middle i.d. is my stint at Fortune Magazine, where I was the Infographics director and got to work with the awesome folks at CNNMoney.com (I’m fading!). And here’s me now, working for Mr. Rupert Murdoch at the Wall St. Journal. Guess graphics make you gray. :,,)

Anyway, when Nishant from MIX asked me to write about what I do, it was kind of arresting, like the time that Montana patrolman intercepted my husband doing 94 on a long stretch of highway. Forced me to pause.

So here I am, pulling over. I’m going to deconstruct some of what I know and share my 7 ½ Secrets to Successful Infographics. Get comfortable. Get a cup of coffee. (Get me one while you’re at it?) Feel free to read this in any order you like. Or if you’re lazy, I mean busy, just read some of it. But keep this link around, because you never know…

1. Have an idea

Where does one procure an idea?

Usually they’re found in the shower. Or at 3 a.m. in the middle of a deep sleep. So if you don’t have a clue what you want to make a graphic about, I’d suggest having a good scrub and going to bed, though not necessarily in that order.

Gorilla in Tutu Dream

Don’t wake up with an idea? Here are some thoughts from the media outlets I’ve worked for:

Our stories are driven by the news, so our graphics are framed by ‘what’s new’ and sometimes ‘what’s different’ and hopefully, ‘what’s relevant.’ Editors have put their glasses on the tops of their heads and said things to me like, "Our job is to inform and delight our readers." That’s a nice beginning.

I’ve also heard, "What we’re doing here is trying to increase The Traffic," my response to which is, that pretty much limits us to focusing on a) sex b) violence c) cute animals d) Steve Jobs or e) all of the above in some twisted combination. I’m not even going to go there.

Here’s a list I kept to amuse myself when I first started working for Time Inc/TimeWarner, CNN’s parent company:

CNN Popular Videos

Anyway, new, relevant, different, informative and even entertaining are good places to start. If you’re seized by an idea or have a story busting out of you, even better. But if you’re not sure what to pursue, I suggest you tell me something I don’t know or reveal something I couldn’t otherwise find. Teach me or wow me, but don’t cover ground that’s well-tread.

The best way to figure out what your story (aka your infographic) is? Get really honest and ask yourself, "What’s the sexiest part of the task ahead of me?" If you don’t want to spend time with your graphic, no one else will, either.

Ok, so you’ve got your idea. Or maybe you’re stuck executing someone else’s. Proceed to step two.

2. Get data

How is this done? I just dial the phone, say, "Hi, this is Sarah Slobin from (insert news organization here.) I need data for this story we’re working on and if I could have that in the next hour or so, that would be really great because I’m on deadline…"

It totally works.

Not helpful, is it?

Let’s try again.

Where do you find data?

Lucky for you, big data has hit critical mass and data viz is in. These days, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a web evangelist who says datageeks are ninjas!!! And because transparency is the new black, everyone is giving away numbers.

Here’s the chicken and egg part: before you can find data, you have to know a little about what you’re looking for. And no, this doesn’t mean just google your topic and read the wikipedia entry. Buck up. You have to approach your subject matter academically and do some research. If you can’t face that, approach an academic.

Grover

Track down a professor type and tell her you’re looking for an expert who’s super-smart about your topic. People love to be experts and if they’re not, they’re jealous of people who are and will know where to find them. Be patient. These folks keep wacky office hours.

Can’t find an academic? Look for a scientist. Scientists are used to explaining things, since most of us slept through AP chemistry (or elected history of film instead.)

Beeker

Can’t find a scientist? Try a government agency like data.gov, census.gov or bea.gov. Here’s a hint: if the name is ‘Bureau of Labor Statistics’, someone is sitting on metrics.

Government got you down? Try non-governmental organizations. Examples of NGOs are the U.N., the IMF, OECD or EUROFRTTPLF. (Kidding on the last one, acronyms get torturous.)

Animal

The truth is, digging up data takes focus. You have to chase it, just like my dog Sketch when she sees a pigeon.

Do, however, be mindful of your source. I’m told there are these people with "agendas" and, like crossing the street, you can find them to the "left" and to the "right." I hear these folks take data and twist it like balloon animals, so beware—those things always pop before you get them home.

3. Tools, and brandishing them

Say you’ve got a bunch of numbers, or a bevy of statistics, or a gaggle of geese. First: nix the geese; they poop everywhere. Now what? It’s time to fall in love (or at least get real intimate) with your material. Maestro, cue the romantic music.

This is where you get to choose your tools. I know, I know: our socks outlast our operating systems these days, so you want to know what the latest cutting edge program for data viz is, right? Ok, I’ll tell you.

Some people work in Excel. Some people work in R. Some of you love your Illustrator to death. Processing, Manyeyes, Swivel, Tableau—it’s all good. None of them are perfect, of course. But which is the best? I’ll let you in on a trade secret: there’s only one program you need to know if you’re serious about infographics. This is crucial, so listen up and you too can be a data viz star:

Not!

It’s not the paintbrush that produces a work of genius; it’s the genius, right?

Britney

And ok, I know the Harvard attitude in the cubicle next to you is always waving some elegant little snippet of code in your face and throwing around 6-syllable words, implying you’ll never catch up. Don’t play that game. No one wins. I’m letting you off the hook for being an expert on every new program.

(Yeah, it’s Britney the day she discovered her ponytail looks like a little fountain.)

Guide to Information Graphics - Dona Wong

My friend Dona Wong, who wrote the book on infographics, (ok a book, but still) told me about an intern of hers who was fresh out of college and worrying his skills would atrophy while the kids back at school were learning new technology. Look, it’s lovely to have a Swiss army knife, but how many of you have actually used the little scissors? Learn one thing and do that well. If you’ve got a set of tools you can wield like Jackie Chan, go for it. If not, choose something that fits you comfortably and stick with it until you get good. Wax on. Wax off.

4. Scrub your data

Cat Feet Because working with data is truly unpredictable, I’ve developed a form of selective amnesia that allows me to cope. Every time I start a graphic, I’m optimistic that my material will show up perfectly packaged with a lovely bow and some chocolate covered pretzels in a cellophane bag. Instead, it usually arrives like the black sheep cousin at a family wedding—late, disheveled and smelling like something stuck to the bottom of a cat’s feet.

Before you can visualize anything, you’ve got to make sure your material is clean, clean, clean and super-organized. If you don’t have an obsessive-compulsive personality now is a good time to develop one. My friend Archie Tse at the Times spends a huge amount of time massaging his data, making spreadsheets that are works of art in themselves. Then he pops out heart-achingly beautiful graphics in like thirty seconds. It makes me crazy.

Archie Almanacs

I’m pretty sure Archie stole this secret from this guy Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said something like, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." (Full disclosure: I missed that conference call so I can’t confirm this exact quote.)

There are myriad payoffs to having clean data. You can expect that at some point during your project, you’ll run out of bandwidth, or someone will look over your shoulder and say, "Hey, what’s that spike there, is that a mistake?" When that happens, you’ll be grateful your numbers are in solid shape.

Here’s where I remind you to always practice safe charting. Don’t work on the original data. Instead, keep a copy of it. That way you get a do-over if you have an uh-oh moment and insert a mistake.

5. Get Freudian

Now you’re ready to make charts. What’s next? You need to deeply understand your data. Here’s how I do it:

At the beginning of each graphic, I spend some time just staring without comprehending anything. I used to feel bad about this, like I was wasting time, until I realized its part of what they call "process."

So after I finish wasting time…

No, actually. If I stare at my spreadsheet (or table or daunting stack of white papers) for a while, I start to get it. I read it in small bits and go forward and backward randomly until something clicks. Did you ever look for the Ninas hidden in a Hirschfeld drawing? Ok, how about Where’s Waldo? Better reference? Once you find what you’re looking for, you can’t not see it.

Where's Waldo?

You may want your data to tell a certain story, or think that it tells a certain story, but you must respect what the numbers actually say. Statistics are a little like anarchists: if you force them to stay in line, you’re begging for trouble. It’s crucial that you understand what the information in front of you says. This will guide your process.

When I was at the NYT, there was this reporter who drove a thousand miles across country chasing this thesis that population growth was sparked near off-ramps on the interstate. It was a lovely road-trip story; he gathered amazing anecdotes and the editors loved it. Except that when we mapped the census data it didn’t support the thesis. Imagine how much gas he could have saved had he started by looking at the data.

If you’re new to data viz, go slow. Start small. Look at the superlatives first. Find the largest number and compare it to the smallest. See how nicely your charts curve in the middle when you plot them in a fever line or a bar chart. Or look for the jagged rise and deep fall of the information, which you’ve probably seen if you’ve got your hands on something like, oh say, recent market data from anywhere on the planet.

Once you’ve got your head wrapped around what you’re sitting on (I know, that’s not physically possible), you can choose a charting form.

6. Let’s play

And now, the fun part.

Classic western: Desperado, Antonio Banderas circa 1995. A guitar, a ponytail and a gun. He’s standing on the dusty road flanked by his compadres. The bad guys pull up in a limo. He’s calm, he’s un-phased, he cracks his neck, stares deadpan into the camera and says (read with Spanish accent), "Let’s play."

Let's Play

This is you! You’re Antonio Banderas! The data are the bad guys! No, I don’t mean you should shoot your statistics with a guitar case/rocket launcher, but at the beginning of every process there’s always a chance to play it straight or play. I choose play.

"With charts?" you say, rolling one eye and keeping the other on your tweeting thumb. Yes, my friend. With charts.

Look around. The growing world of data viz means there’s new and inspiring work being posted every day. From Facebook to Flickr to Feltron to Fry to Flowing Data, expression-by-infographic is everywhere. And guess what? If you gather up work you find compelling, you can keep it and use it as "reference." "Reference" is that thing that helps you think about what charting form to use. It changed my life.

Eric Palma Cheney I used to think ideas were supposed to just pop out of your head, or that good artists should be able to draw anything. ("A wheat thresher? Why of course, Bob, it looks something like this…") Then I learned that even my husband, a gifted illustrator (www.ericpalma.com), uses reference to spark ideas. (I’m not exactly sure what he was browsing when he made this Cheney drawing….)

Nightingale It never occurred to me that you don’t have to make it up all by your lonesome. Reference! You can use it for…inspiration!

Look, this rise of infoviz—we’re not inventing something new. Sure, the web means we can make an interactive with big data we’ve collected on how often we e-mail gramps. But did you know that gramps was browsing Fortune magazine infographics back during World War II?

Florence Nightingale? She died a century ago. She made charts. Look it up.

Need inspiration? Go old school. Check out Chris Mullen’s archives of visual storytelling. See what moves you.

7. Edit thyself

Ambitious?

Fabulous.

Got a lot to say?

Cool.

Really excited about your data?

Excellent.

Frame your idea clearly. Take a disciplined approach to visual storytelling. Your primary point should be clear and supported by context and detail. The main art should draw us in. Sidebars should be well-focused. Don’t spam us with too much information; nobody has time these days.

Sure, you can go deep on the web, but let’s be realistic—according to my last Omniture search, users spend only 4 ½ minutes with online calculators on average. And with calculators they have an agenda, like seeing how much is left in checking after they buy a new Xbox! Graphics are meant to be fast, visceral and easy to digest. Here’s one I did on the day of a big candy company merger:

Cadbury (Be kind; I did this in 6 hours on deadline and it was b&w originally.)

½. Respect the asterisk

When you were in middle school, did you ever do that 10-step exercise where step 1 is "read all the instructions before you start" and step 10 is "ignore instructions 2 through 9?" If you were like me, you ignored step 1, picked up your pencil and knocked-out 2 through 9, thinking you were a smarty-pants who was going to beat all the goody-two-shoes rule-followers. (I’m Spanky in this picture.)

Little Rascals

Except the exercise was allll about attention to detail. Or tormenting students.

Making an infographic is one time when you must read the small print. If you get all the way through making the chart, pitching it to your boss, showing it off to your colleagues and then discover in the footnotes of the metrics that the methodology has changed and the numbers aren’t comparable… Well, you’re screwed.

Working with data requires a certain degree of rigor. Just does.* Make sure you know what the asterisk is connected to and suffer through the small type. There’s gold in there. Companies don’t disclose the jet they gave the CEO in the executive summary at the front of the report; they stick it in the footnotes four pages from the end.

Speaking of the end, you made it! Congratulations.

To recap, nap a lot. Have more coffee. Or if you’d like, friend me and send me what you’ve found and we can chat. It’s been kind of nice pulling over and talking about infographics. I thank you for sticking around.

(Looking for the footnote? Good for you. I’ve left it out. My gift to you for paying attention. Now you know what the ½ in the title means.)

Follow the Conversation

54 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Charles Apple said on Mar 25, 2010

Wonderful! I love it! But then again, I''ve been a Sarah Slobin fan since I was nine or ten years old!

Just kidding. I think I was 15.

Miles Bacon said on Mar 26, 2010

Really nice work. It''s the longest article I''ve finished online in a very long time. :)

Eduardo Moura said on Mar 26, 2010

Amazing article. I loved the references :)
Congratulations for being able to do what you do for all these years, getting better every day, and never losing the excitement. That''s one of the things I love about design.

gary said on Mar 26, 2010

interesting article!

David Foster said on Mar 26, 2010

That was about the best (and funniest) description of the process of conceiving and creating information graphics that I''ve ever seen! Makes me proud to be in the field. Keep up the great work!

Karsten Januszewski said on Mar 26, 2010

One source for data these days is the Microsoft Dallas project (http://www.microsoft.com/windowsazure/dallas/). They''ve got a bunch of pretty interesting data sources up there, most of them free, including Associated Press, UN data, Data.gov and NASA. And, because they are vetted, you know the data is "clean".

Davvi said on Mar 27, 2010

It''s great to see an article on infographics written from a truly human perspective, rather than just using dry explanations of the steps required to make one. Thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Suzette Moyer said on Apr 1, 2010

Wonderful! Will keep and share this. Well done!

Wes Rand said on Apr 2, 2010

Great article. Some really good ideas in there I''ll have to remember and use.

Harry said on Apr 3, 2010

Great article

Don Morris said on Apr 5, 2010

I didn''t want to read this... but you took me prisoner the instant I saw the dancing gorilla. Great images, references, examples, antedotes and especially good use of footnotes! I love Chris Mullin''s visual storytelling website. I''d never seen it. I will pass this on to all my artist buddies.

Jason Lankow said on May 4, 2010

I have to agree with Miles above...this is the longest article on the internet I''ve finished in a long-time. This is such a breath of fresh-air, in particular to realize that you don''t have to know everything about every program or work with everyone or be better than anyone...just to sit with each idea and let it grow into something new and unique. I love your ID badges at the beginning...that is some serious street cred! Thanks again for the beautiful post!

Sarah Slobin said on May 4, 2010

well thank you to everyone. glad to provide a good read and i appreciate the appreciation. :)
-s

nic said on May 8, 2010

Nice read with emphasis on those easily overlooked essentials. Thanks

Bamonzama@yahoo.çom said on May 11, 2010

Speak your mind, but please--be kind This is awesome u guys doing great keep up the good work

Andy Cotgreave said on May 11, 2010

This is a fantastic post. I really like your attitude to choosing the right tool. It''s so right to go with the one you are happiest using. Too often a power user of Tool X will impose that onto other users, when they''d be able to get the same result using Tool Y.

Paul Downey said on May 11, 2010

Lovely article, engagingly written. I''m now trying to turn an overwhelming feeling of envy (I want your job!) into inspiration!

KC Ramsay said on May 11, 2010

I''ve just spent a few minutes testing your 7 1/2 steps as a model for approaching and structuring a consulting assignment with a new client. You have nicely described the design process, and with humor and clarity. Many thanks, especially for pulling me outside of my normal lingo so I can see what I do in a new light.

Dustin said on May 11, 2010

Thanks for sharing, Sarah. It''s good to hear a good summary from somebody with experience.

jerome cukier said on May 11, 2010

thanks for the article
I''m a graphics editor at OECD. and true, we have lots of data on everything. but the biggest difficulty in my job is that after I obtain what I think is the most appropriate data for my story and create my chart, when everything is ready to be published, a colleague may object to the data based on subtle limitations which are not documented: "you can''t present this like that", "you can''t compare this and that", etc.
so in addition to the difficulties of accessing data and cleaning it for further processing there''s also the fun of interpreting it and be careful of caveats

Mandy said on May 11, 2010

What would be your favorite infographic - one created by you and one created by someone else?

Mandy said on May 11, 2010

What would be your favorite infographic - one created by you and one created by someone else?

sarah slobin said on May 11, 2010

jerome: it''s true, you have to be very careful with the ''as compared to what'' factor. once data is hardened into a chart people take it for fact. my friend maryanne and i keep a copy of a chart making a correlation between traffic fatalities and fresh lemons for that reason.

a favorite chart i did?
once at fortune, for a story on kraft we sculpted a chart about cheese out of cheese.
http://www.johngrimwade.com/secretspdf/SarahSlobin.pdf

i''ve done much more serious work, but i think i''ll never have that chance in my lifetime again.

as to an infographic created by someone else...i''ll mull that. there''s no one answer.

Philip flip Kromer said on May 12, 2010

Finding data online: FlowingData and ReadWriteWeb have both posted lists summarizing a variety of resources:

http://flowingdata.com/2009/10/01/30-resources-to-find-the-data-you-need/
http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/where_to_find_open_data_on_the.php

I''m founder of http://infochimps.org, a site to help you find data on any subject -- a huge number of government and open datasets, sports stats, financial data and more. There''s a dataset request form we monitor, or please contact me directly if there''s particular data you need!

HARI JAGANATHAN said on May 20, 2010

Hi!

Great One! I Retweet in my home page!! Thanks:)

Joaquín said on May 20, 2010

Taged. This''s gold.

Sean said on May 21, 2010

Great article! Thanks for sharing the wisdom.

We''re planning to do a big, graceful swan dive into the pool of data visualization / infographics here shortly (to start uncovering some of the great, crazy, voluminous stats being tracked by many video games these day). This article will be a great touchstone as we move forward with that.

Adam Westbrook said on May 30, 2010

Wow, excellent article. I loved how the actual creation of an infographic was hardly mentioned. We might all get distracted by the big technology but the real work is in finding and interrogating data. Great stuff :)

Paul Bradshaw said on Jun 2, 2010

A wonderful distillation - thanks. I''ll try to incorporate it or a link to it in my book chapter about data journalism. I''ve blogged the core of it at http://onlinejournalismblog.com/tag/data-journalism/ if that''s any use.

Dave Kaufman - Techlife said on Jun 7, 2010

This article was very useful and a great perspective for my syndicated column''s Techlife article on infographics. http://bit.ly/bnEz8O I really enjoyed the perspective Sarah and would hope to read more about your experiences. Great use of the name badges...I found some of my old ones recently which made it hit home.

Matthew Glidden said on Jun 9, 2010

Nice prose and collection of images. Your trio of employee badge designs (and hair styles) is an infographic in itself!

Chrille Brun said on Jun 20, 2010

YEPA! YEPA! This was fun to read inspiring and just about exactly what I needed in my life right now. The last month I''ve really gotten more into infograhics and I feel that this field was always there for me to play...You''ve made it even more clear now. Thanks!

Ethan said on Jul 9, 2010

Very informative and entertaining. Thank you! Maybe you should put this information in graphical form so we can grasp it all the more easily, haha!

Much appreciated.

Brian said on Jul 23, 2010

Love the instructions. I have an idea and now know how to pursue it. I found this from Yana''s site..

dacarras said on Jul 26, 2010

Everyone''s agree on ''no best software'' to data analysis/visualizing; and stick to the figures of ''be master of one'' and avoid ''torturing yourself trying to learn every new thing''. I was looking for new plataforms, and finally: R language, Tableu, Processing, Manyeyes, seems to be gd alternatives. Thanx for all the tips!

Rajesh R. Nair said on Nov 11, 2010

one of the best article i h ave ever came across. great thanks

Go Skinny said on Nov 14, 2010

What an excellent article, very informative

Sixth Street Bars said on Jan 14, 2011

I thank Where''s Waldo was my favorite graphic in this article. :-)

Thanks though, a lot of good ideas and comments.

Marianne said on May 13, 2011

This is a great and instructive article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Ching Goh said on Jun 8, 2011

Would you recommend any softwares out there Sarah? Or just with raw stuff such as spreadsheets?

Craig Kilgore said on Jun 9, 2011

Great article. Similar to another question, is there any software / programs you would recommend for infographics?

Kate Morris said on Jun 9, 2011

Brilliant article, one of the best I have read in a long time. I am working on my infographic process right now and this is just what I needed to read. Well done.

Andrea Costa said on Jun 13, 2011

We've walked the same halls, and I've enjoyed your Fortune graphics from the other side.

Thanks for the laugh! Great article!

sarah slobin said on Jun 13, 2011

hi guys,
software -- spreadsheet...yes. there are lots of options but you can only master one at a time. the answer to which is best for you, is, 'it depends' on what the final form is, on what skills you already have that you can build on. please feel free to email me and i can think thru the answer with you personally?
tx!

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Abby Pope said on Nov 15, 2011

Wow, this is incredibly helpful! I was actually shown your site for my yearbook class. :) Bravo, on keeping me giggling all class period!

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Chris Beckley said on Feb 1, 2012

Thanks for the insight. I find your style and humor very easy to read. As someone just starting to design infographics professionally, I am just starting to understand the importance of the data vs. the graphic art.

Mike said on Mar 15, 2012

Great piece, I've recently started putting together some stats for a startup I do some work for. http://tworedtrees.co.uk/ I'm going to make an infographic based on sales categories, I'll post it here to let you know how it goes! Thanks

Melanie Botha said on Mar 30, 2012

Abosfabulolutely brilliant! LOVE the writing style first of all and then the pragmatic tips! Well done, one of the best articles read in a looong time!