An information graphic or infographic is a visual representation of a data set or instructive material. An infographic takes a large amount of information in text or numerical form and then condenses it into a combination of images and text, allowing viewers to quickly grasp the essential insights the data contains. Infographics are not a product of the Web, but the Internet has helped popularize their use as a content medium.
A simple Google Trends search will show that the term “infographic” has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity lately, largely due to the use of this medium for editorial content on the web. I see this term as the broadest descriptor, encompassing, obviously, any graphic that displays information. This may include graphics showing data, copy or both. As the buzz surrounding this word has grown, so has the argument regarding what should be included in this classification. I believe this term should remain open and inclusive as the medium evolves, leaving the specificity to the areas outlined below.
In the age of big data, we need to both make sense of the numbers and be able to easily share the story they tell. The practice of data visualization, which is the study of the visual representation of data, typically analyzes large data sets. It seeks to uncover trends by showing meta patterns, or to make single data points easily visible. The visual display of this data is the most interesting and universal way to make it accessible to a wide audience. And as with all infographic design, the display method is rooted in the context and desired message.
Infographics are used for the following reasons:
- To communicate a message,
- To present a lot of data or information in a way that is compact and easy to comprehend,
- To analyze data in order to discover cause-and-effect relationships,
- To periodically monitor the route of certain parameters.
The History of Infographics
Although infographics have only recently gained widespread popularity online, they have actually existed since the 17th century! In 1626, astronomer Christoph Scheiner published a book titled Rosa Ursina sive Sol, which contained several infographics explaining the rotational patterns of the sun. This is the first known printed example of an infographic.
One other notable early example occurred in 1857. Florence Nightingale created infographics about the conditions of military hospitals in England, which were presented to Queen Victoria in an attempt to have them improved. These infographics included bar and pie charts that showed the number and causes of deaths of soldiers.
Printed infographics gained popularity in the 20th century, especially with the widespread availability of newspapers. Additionally, starting in 1983, a data visualization expert named Edward Tufte wrote a series of books about infographics. He also offered lectures and hands-on workshops on the subject.
At the dawn of the 21st century, infographics transitioned into a digital format. With so many historic examples, Tufte’s teachings, and the emergence of the Internet, infographics seamlessly transitioned online. It was around 2010 that they became what we know today: digital graphics designed to present complex information, usually posted on blogs or within articles on websites, sometimes spreading virally.