How does seeing this infographic make you feel? When you see how much coal you’re using, does it motivate you to green your home? Or does it leave you saying, “So what?”

The infographic, originally published in an article by EnergySavvy, puts energy use in context. But it could be improved. The EnergySavvy article explains the infographic using the following paragraph:

Reducing the original coal pile to 2,000 pounds prevents nearly 6,300 pounds of carbon dioxide, 36 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 16 pounds of nitrogen oxide from being emitted into the atmosphere annually (Environmental Protection Agency). It could also save the home around $300 on their electricity bills each year.

The problem with these numbers is that they do not translate directly to impacts people can understand. If I tell the average person that his new air conditioner will prevent a certain number of pounds of sulfur dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, what will he be able to do with that information? Not very much.

What is missing from this infographic is context that readers can use to relate these numbers and impacts to their everyday lives. What does that 36 pounds of sulfur dioxide do to the environment? Adding an illustration to show the scale of each environmental impact would make this infographic much stronger.

Without context, numbers mean much less than they would otherwise.

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A wave of infographics has hit the Internet. In this sea of visual information, how can one decide what differentiates a good infographic from a bad one? How can you decide whether or not to make an infographic of your own?

Surprise Your Readers

I believe the best infographics change readers’ perspectives. The infographic below – about the relationship between fitness and intelligence – shifted my perspective when I read it.

Stereotypically, many people in the United States think exercise has little to do with being an “A” student. For people who have demanding jobs, there can even be social pressure not to exercise.

This infographic from Classes and Careers shows that exercise improves mental performance throughout one’s life.

Exercise Makes You Smart - Infographic

Think in Terms of Graphics, Not Words

Here’s an infographic which is too text-heavy. The organization which created it, FitnessHealthZone, has put lengthy explanations in the infographic rather than pulling out key statistics and diagramming them.

Vegetables and Physical Activity - Infographic

Use Design to Make Your Points Clear

Present information in ways that make sense to readers and lead them through your thought process.

Would you start a PowerPoint presentation with your last slide? Probably not. Expect your reader’s eye to travel through the infographic in sequence. Treat the infographic as a presentation that starts at the top of the page. Use design to draw readers’ attention to the sequence of ideas you want them to see.

The following infographic from Health Science should begin with images about the health impacts of sugar. Because it omits them, it is much less persuasive than it would be otherwise. Also, one of the diagrams implies that 44 percent of an individual fruit drink contains juice rather than showing that 44 percent of all fruit drinks contain juice.

Motivate Action by Focusing on Impacts

If you’re going to use an infographic to encourage readers to take political action, it’s especially important that you motivate them to do so. The fruit drink infographic focuses on documenting advertising dollars while omitting most of the health concerns. The advertising dollars aren’t the main problem – the health consequences are.

Make Recommended Actions Easy to Do

Asking a relatively passive online audience to push legislators for regulation of fruit drinks may not be realistic. A link to a petition might be a better option.

The personal actions shown below – drinking water and reading ingredient lists – are likely to appeal to parents and shoppers.

The infographic about vegetables and exercise suggests many easy actions but doesn’t present them in a graphic format.

Use Contrast and Humor

The exercise and intelligence infographic uses contrasts to show the effects of different types of exercise.

The fruit drink infographic is the best example of contrast and humor in this post. Its use of mustaches to represent misbehaving beverages is catchy. The calorie comparison between fruit drinks and chicken legs is also well done.

Soda's Evil Twin - Fruit Drinks

Find Online Design Tools

Are you interested in making your own infographics? Try visiting Makeuseof has reviewed a few other tools. .Net Magazine has a tutorial which outlines some of the ideas I’ve included above but doesn’t focus on motivation, logical flow and action as much as I did in this post.

data cake
Image by EpicGraphic

Is it dinner time yet? This series of cake photos, re-blogged from EpicGraphic, shows the process of making data into knowledge. It starts with eggs and flour and ends with an empty plate.

This graphic shows the importance of putting icing on the cake by presenting information attractively. It also shows the value of turning raw data into useful information before placing it in front of one’s audience.

There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in making data viable, valuable and visually appealing.