How to Create Viral Infographics, Part 2: the Data

Jess Bachman
Written 2 years ago
in Design

This is part two of a three-part series on creating viral infographics. Read the first installment, on finding the right story, here.

Infographics, with their constantly shifting definition, are nothing more than a communication tool and can be abused just as easily as the 3D pie chart button in Excel. A strong infographic has a strong data backend, but that data doesn’t have to be numerical.

Data-vis communicates data. Infographics communicate information. Information can be data and data can be information. The bottom line is, your data should be solid, whether it’s represented by numbers, or by facts.

When I first started doing infographics, my sources of inspiration came from data sets that I came across. Federal unemployment data? Make an infographic. Economic trade data? Make an infographic. CIA World Fact Book? Make an infographic.

But then I started to realize that some of the articles I read were data too, only text-based data. And it could be conveyed in a visual way. The myriad of issues that plague GM? Make an infographic. The myriad of issues that led to the 2008 financial crisis? Make an infographic. You get the idea. Infographics can be a great medium for conveying complicated information, especially if it’s a collection of concepts, ideas, or connections.

On the other hand, infographics can be a fun way to convey boring and pedestrian information. A list of temperatures is data for an infographic. Densities of substances is data for an infographic

But this visualizing lists stuff is a slippery slope. Always make sure the infographic is either fun (which speaks to design) or has an angle (which speaks to the story).

If you don’t have a point of view, or if your data doesn’t draw any conclusions, why would anyone care what you have to say?

 This is where you typically end up with a “collection-of-facts” infographic, and those are easy to hate. People love trivia, there is nothing wrong with that. But trivia is not data that is conducive to infographics any more. Those may have gone viral a few years ago, but are cringe-inducing today, now that our audiences are more infographic-savvy.

Supplement your data with more research

So while anything can be data, data is rarely served on a silver platter waiting to be visualized. If you find yourself reading an article and think it would make a good visual, great: get started visualizing it, but know that it doesn’t end there. In every single case, I have had to augment the main peice of research (data) with my own research (data). For non-numerical infographics, formats like flowcharts, timelines, or even metaphor-based depictions work best. You will often have to dig forward or backwards to complete a timeline or fill in connected nodes in a flowchart to make it comprehensible to a visual person.  This requires more data and more research, so get out there and dig it up. The more original research and analysis you add to your graphic, the greater its chance of virality.

Reach out to the experts

My best-kept secret for unearthing unique analysis is to work with the experts. I am a graphic designer first, a researcher second, and an expert last. I had heard some interesting stats about the malware underground and wanted to put together a chart of the economy of it all. Googled research was a bust so I put out a call for an expert on hackernews. I was contacted by an ‘expert’ who was able to fill in a lot of the blanks. When I did a piece on student loans, I contacted the owner of StudenLoanJustice.org. The research for a diagram of how google works came from Aaron Wall of SEOBook. Many of these experts really enjoy the chance to see their cause and expertise turned into an infographic. Reach out to them, pick their brain, and offer sourcing credit or a link. Their expertise is usually better and more unique than your Googled research and they can certainly help speed an informative infographic along.

If you’ve noticed that any discussion of proper numerical data techniques is missing from this post, it’s because I am leaving that to my more learned colleagues. My eyes start to cross when I’m in Excel for longer than a few minutes, and if you are the same way, you can still create awesome infographics. The data is all around you. An article you read. Your personal history. Even a trip to the store can yield data that is best communicated in an infographic. If your story resonates, and your data is strong, then going viral is just a matter of putting it out there.

Jess Bachman is a Creative Director at Visual.ly.