Seven Design Tips for Making Great Infographics

Bad design does irreversible harm to an infographic. It trivializes good content (for the rare visitor who chooses to wade through the ugliness and confusion instead of fleeing in horror at the sight of it) and reflects badly on you and your business.

There's no substitute for working with a good designer, but if that isn't an option here are seven tips to keep your design on track:

1) Edit your content first: People can fall in love with their content. There's a tendency by some, including your superior, to want to include everything they researched or wrote for a graphic. This can create horribly cluttered and unsuccessful visualizations, like trying to cram five pounds of garbage into a two-pound bag.

One reason this congestion occurs is the graphic is written before it's designed and then all the text is crammed into a layout. A good way to keep it at a reasonable amount is to do a layout of the graphic first (using the tips 2 through 5 below) and then writing the text to fit the allocated space afterward.

2) Break your content down into sections: Every subject can be broken down into about three-to-five component parts making your graphic much easier to follow and digest. What would the sections be? What would the subsections be? Make an outline and write out each sub section's title (you can edit it later if it doesn't fit in the layout). Another cool way to break your content down is visually, using a mind map. I particularly like to use this free one,

3) Organize your layout with a column grid: Most layout programs like Microsoft Publisher, Adobe InDesign and even Word allow you to make some sort of a lined grid that will help give structure to your graphic. Don't make a grid with too many lines (like graph paper) because it will be overwhelming to design with, but don't make too few lines, either, like only three. You want enough to give you some options for carving up the space.
View image
View image
(Notice how the boxes lock into the grid.)

4) Lay out your graphic in a logical way, and keep it simple. The goal of your design should be to take the reader by the hand and lead them easily through the information. Too many people try to show off their fun, creative side in a graphic, and that can often be fatal for easy navigation. In Western cultures, we tend to read from the top left of a graphic (where headlines often live) and work our way down to the bottom right (where tiny source lines live).

5) Make the topic's main point the largest element:
Think about what a poster's job is. It's to grab someone's attention and give them an idea about what the content is about. This can be true for an infographic. It's a good idea to make the main point you're trying to get across the dominant element in your graphic, but make sure you have enough content in this section to justify its size.
View image
(One of my Newsweek graphics that uses a large U.S. map as it's dominant image)

6) Word art is not high art! Keep your type simple. A lot of the 'art' type that is available in some programs like Word and Powerpoint can cause howls of derisive laughter among your readers. And avoid cliché fonts like Comic Sans and Papyrus. All they really do is erode a graphic's credibility. When in doubt, go with Helvetica or Arial and use a hierarchy of sizes and weights. The headline can be the largest because it's where you want people's eyes to go first, then smaller section heads and then the body text. And keep text black. Leave color for the graphic elements.
View image
(The type sizes are a suggestion, only, and won't work for all graphics)

7) Use color for a good reason: Just because there are a billion colors available in these graphics programs doesn't mean you should use them all. A good philosophy with color is to keep it minimal and to use it for guiding the reader to important information. Color the less important elements with muted colors, like grays and tans, and use one or two saturated (bright) colors as "accent colors" where you want the reader's eye to go. Consider your company's branding when choosing colors. Also, you want all your palette of colors to go together like a good outfit you'd wear, and you can find color families by searching terms like this on the web.
View image
(A graphic I made that uses a red accent color surrounded by muted colors.)