by Michael O'Neill
August 27th, 2012

We’re often proposing infographics as a method of communicating complex information or data sets to readers. Like biscuits with tea, infographics are now an expected part of any media outreach. It’s been said before, but gone are the days when data was compiled into a nice table or pie chart and pasted into a press release.

Infographics may not have a shelf life, but there’s enough evidence to point to more scrutiny being levelled towards them because of the high volume of work that is being published, often without all of the right critical checks being made. It made me laugh, for instance, when The Atlantic magazine put out a ‘Christmas plea’ to bloggerst to “help stop this [infographic] plague in its track,” but the author raised a very important point about the practice of pushing out visual information that uses reused, old or wonky data.

If PR practitioners are serious about engagement in the digital age they will need to start applying the rules of journalism to what they do. A well-executed infographic can have a huge effect, but some vital questions need to be asked before the design stage. Can this data make for a compelling visual story? Is it a story people will care about? Is it engaging? Don’t obsess about whether it will be shared on Facebook; obsess about whether it is going to educate viewers, tell them something they don’t know, make them laugh even.

I looked at how best to summarise the motives of anyone embarking on visualising information and I settled on the London Tube map in its various forms: the map as it might appear geographically; the original designed by Harry Beck in 1931; and how it has been re-designed for the digital age. Beck’s design wasn’t wedded to London’s geography, it was designed, like a circuit diagram, to explain London’s complex network of stations in an elegant, digestible way, and it has survived the test of time for these very reasons. I won’t call the London Tube map an infographic, because it isn’t one, but when you embark on a project that involves visualising information, think about the principle of simplicity Beck applied to London’s Underground stations.

The point is this: as busy and complicated as London is, the Tube map tells more refined, engaging story. That should really be the objective of any visual representation you embark on with infographics. After all, if you’re not making visual information that is simple and engaging, should you even be bothering?

Rob O’Brien is a media specialist, Singapore, at Weber Shandwick

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