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Top of the Charts
Three masters on the art and craft of the infographic

by Sam McMillan

(from left) The Visual Article: "The Future of Food, Wired/Carl De Torres;
The Flow Chart: "Network," Bloomberg Businessweek/Jennifer Daniel;
Useful Bait/Cheat Sheet: "Caffeine," Wired/Carl De Torres;
Number Porn: "Overkill," Wired/Carl De Torres

Infographics are everywhere, explaining a complex world to us. They promise an “aha” moment of insight, but more often end up delivering a glistening chunk of eye-candy. Wired magazine calls its full-page infographics “Infoporn.” And for those who can’t get enough, Fast Company offers an “Infographic of the Day.”

Today, infographics play a vital role in conveying information, changing attitudes and empowering people to take action. A look at the wind map coded by Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas (who now lead Google’s Big Picture data visualization group in Cambridge, Massachusetts) during tornado season might have a profound effect on where you choose to buy your next house. A chart created by Carl De Torres for Bill Gates’s blog, The Gates Notes, shows the percentage of various nations’ gross domestic product that is contributed as aid to developing countries—and tells you how well (or poorly) the United States is doing to meet the United Nations’ target. Climate change deniers in Congress could do worse than examining Jennifer Daniel’s infographic for Bloomberg Businessweek on the rising cost of natural disasters.

So what is an infographic, anyway? At its most basic, an infographic combines data and pictures to communicate an idea. Using color, type, layout, text, icons and numbers to visualize data, infographics create a unique kind of narrative by organizing information to suggest a story with a beginning, middle and end. Because infographics help us find patterns, spot trends and comprehend complex data easier, they turn information into insight. In the process, infographics have become their own design trend as publishers attempt to transform raw statistics into visualizations that are meaningful and memorable.

And that’s why “everyone wants to do one,” designer Carl De Torres says. De Torres, who spent four years creating infographics at Wired before opening his own design studio in Oakland, California, claims, “Infographic is the buzzword of the year. I actually spend a lot of my day talking clients out of infographics.”

De Torres begins the process of designing an infographic by “looking for outliers,” he says. For his reimagining of the NBA Hall of Fame for ESPN The Magazine, De Torres asked, “Who is the worst guy; who is the best guy? You have to make the ends of the spectrum clear.”

When it comes to visualizing information, there is a massive range of presentation styles, from illustrative to scientific to dynamic to authoritative, De Torres explains. But the designer is guided by the fundamental constraints of the data, whether it’s numerical, geographic, temporal or some novel combination of metrics. No matter what the form is, De Torres’s goal is to “create something honest and effective. Being honest means developing a visual design that suits the data as well as entices the eye.”

Having cut his teeth at Wired, De Torres says, “I understand all too well the desire to hyper-design things. If that balance is skewed one way or the other, you either have a boring infographic or design masturbation.” To avoid falling into the trap of over-designing infographics, De Torres says, “I try to stay away from trends, keep things simple and let the data guide me. Being attuned to this dynamic makes your infographics more effective.”

Jennifer Daniel is a triple threat. With a background as a journalist, illustrator and graphic designer, Daniel applies each distinct discipline to the infographics she takes on, and it shows. The range of infographics Daniel has produced, first in three years at Bloomberg Businessweek, and most recently at the New York Times, where she leads the graphic design department in San Francisco, is wide and deep. McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at