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Introduction to Infographics
Infographics convey complex information using the principles and elements of good design. They are particularly effective for communicating specialized information to a general audience, because they privilege concision and visual communication so that any reader can quickly and easily get the message. Infographics also employ a number of rhetorical modes, making them an ideal addition to any class that wishes to engage students in creating digital projects.
The growing ubiquity of infographics as a central visual literacy tool for understanding complex information means that there is a veritable treasure trove of examples that you can analyze with your students. For example, the New York Times uses data visualization to present information alongside news reports so frequently that they dedicated a week to teaching and understanding infographics in 2010.
The move from analyzing infographics to creating them, though, is not always easy. Although students may intuitively understand the logic of an infographic, they must be explicitly shown how to break down complex information, thoughtfully combine different modes (text, numbers, images), consider the elements of design and rhetorical persuasion, and use relevant technological tools. The framework below, adapted from Sweetland’s Basic Framework for Sequencing and Scaffolding Multimodal Composition Assignments, offers specific approaches to creating effective infographic assignments in any college-level course.
Scaffolding Your Infographic Composition Assignment
Step 1: Help students analyze model infographics that you provide:
Although students have undoubtedly encountered infographics in their everyday lives, you will want to explicitly discuss different types of infographics in order to build visual literacy and common vocabulary. Select a variety of infographics which engage linguistic, visual, and spatial modes to different effects (both good and bad examples can be instructive here). This is useful for guiding students in identifying the features of an effective infographic, the audience(s) it appeals to, where and how it’s used, and how it makes its points. This process helps students “reverse engineer” the models to see how they work.
You might consider a jigsaw activity for this step. For the first round of the jigsaw, each group can identify the effective rhetorical choices their assigned infographic makes. You can then ask members of each of those groups to get together with members of different groups to compare and contrast their lists of effective choices.
As with any writing assignment, a great place to start is with a discussion of audience, purpose and context. That means asking questions such as:
Who is this composition for, and what are the signs that it’s aimed at this particular audience? What stakes does this audience have in the content of the composition?
What is the purpose of this composition? Does it aim to educate, entertain, persuade?
What is the context of this composition? Who writes/records/makes it? How is it distributed? What similar compositions exist, if any? How do these factors inform our analysis of this composition’s content?
You might also consider selecting examples that demonstrate the key attributes that many effective infographics share:
Infographics privilege maximum information in minimal space. A well-designed infographic may appear simple on the surface, but upon closer examination, communicates a lot of information.
Infographics tend to have minimal text. The use of icons, graphics, and images in infographics communicates lots of information in a little space.
Infographics are quickly readable. This is important because infographics are often seen in situations that must quickly capture readers’ attention: for example, a poster on the subway, a meme on social media platforms, or an information-dense screen at an airport.
Infographics are usually adapted for a general audience. The main audience for an infographic is usually one that does not have specialized knowledge of the content that is being shared, which makes it all the more important for infographics to combine textual and visual information as clearly as possible.
You have probably come across a lot of examples on your own, but here are a few places where you can find excellent models to analyze with your class:
The New York Times: the NYT’s “Year in Graphics” features a compilation of stories told through visuals and graphics
The Best American Infographics series: an annual volume which selects the most effective infographics of the year
Information is Beautiful: a website founded by David McCandless which offers many excellent models
Daily Infographic: a website that curates the most interesting and up-to-date infographics available on a daily basis
Steven Heller’s Infographic Designers’ Sketchbook: offers examples from fifty of the world’s leading graphic designers and illustrators
Sweetland’s resources on Supporting Multimodal Literacy offer useful concepts and vocabulary for analyzing infographics as multimodal texts. The primary modes involved in infographic design are:
Linguistic – word choice; delivery of spoken or written text (tone); organization into sentences, phrases, paragraphs, etc.; coherence of individual words and ideas.
Visual – color, layout, style, size, perspective.
Spatial – arrangement, organization, proximity between people and objects.
Step 2: Have students find and analyze infographics that serve as good models to base their own projects on:
After working with students to analyze models you provide, let them find and analyze their own sample infographics, with particular attention to work they want to emulate (or avoid!). You can ask students to identify infographics in their everyday lives for homework or as an in-class exercise. They can collect infographics from online sources, newspapers, books, media, or any of the links listed above. Again, ask students to think about which infographics most successfully combine different modes to convey a message through visual means.
During Steps 1 and 2: remind students that the purpose of analyzing models is to inform and inspire their own infographic compositions. Some effective activities during these steps include:
Develop a list of strategies for reading infographics: Once students have analyzed several different kinds of infographics, they can work in small groups to devise a list of strategies for how to interpret infographics.
Revise an infographic: Students can revise a model infographic to make it more effective, and then discuss what design and rhetorical elements they revised and why.
Examine misleading infographics: Find a misleading infographic, ideally one that is visually appealing but that somehow misrepresents information or data. Show the students the infographic paired with the information/data on which it is based, and ask them to analyze and mismatches between the two. Then discuss the ways in which the infographic’s design choices misrepresent or mislead.
“Translate” a scientific paper: Assign students a scientific paper and ask them to think about how they would represent the information/data presented in an infographic. Students can ask questions about what kinds of visual design choices would best convey the information provided. Would a historical timeline make the most sense? Would a pie chart offer a clearer route to reader comprehension? Would important statistics be best highlighted using a relevant icon or graphic? Students can sketch out possibilities and share them with the group for further discussion.
Step 3: Provide a list of resources that students can use to seek help with technologies/platforms they’ll need to work with:
You should plan enough time for students to build competency in the technologies/platforms you are asking them to use. The ISS Media Center offers a variety of personal assistance, access to technology, and tutorials. Sweetland also works with students on multimodal composition projects of any kind in our Writing Workshop and Peer Writing Centers.
You might ask students to play around in a few different infographic platforms so that they have a sense of how their design choices might be affected by using the tools they decide to use.
Here is a list of beginner-friendly, free, and web-based infographic tools you and your students can use:
diagrams and flowcharts, easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface
many customizable templates, drag-and-drop interface
interactive charts, bar graphs, column tables, word clouds, and maps for visualizing data
public data and forecasts from a range of international organizations and academic institutions including the World Bank, OECD, and Eurostat
many customizable templates, drag-and-drop interface
interactive timeline creation tool
many customizable templates
many customizable templates
Step 4: Have students formally propose their projects:
Proposals provide an opportunity for students to articulate what they want to accomplish with a project as well as generate feedback from you and/or their peers. For instructors, proposals offer a chance to course-correct if students’ plans seem unviable or off-task, or to offer guidance about potential resources, strategies for success, etc. A good infographic proposal includes:
An overview of the infographic’s topic and goals (including a working thesis, hypothesis, or line of inquiry)
Students can ask themselves the following questions: What story am I telling? What do I already know about it and what will I need to research? Where will I get that information? Why does this story need to be told? Who will be my audience? What does my audience need to know and how will they want to learn it?
A plan detailing how the infographic will create and support the argument, what tool or platform it requires, and how that platform in particular will illuminate the research/line of inquiry
A justification for why and how an infographic is appropriate to the goal and audience of the project
Students can ask themselves the following questions: what kind of visual representation would make the most sense for conveying the information I need to convey? Would a timeline make the most sense? A flowchart? A map?
A timeline for completion
This proposal could be formally written, and you could provide feedback in writing, in class, or in face-to-face conferences. Alternately, you could have students “pitch” their projects to the class for on-the-spot feedback.
Step 5: Have students create mock-ups for their projects:
A mock-up is a form of early rough draft (what you might call a sketch draft). For infographics, a mock-up should provide a sense of the visual design choices and organization of the information students hope to present. While you will have ideally introduced your students to potential technological platforms for composing infographics at this point, you might hold off on having them play around with these platforms for their mock-up. At this early stage, many students will benefit from thinking through what they want to convey in their infographic--in terms of both content and design--without having to navigate additional technological challenges.
Step 6: Have students create rough cuts:
Rough cuts are one step further in development than mock-ups. Like mock-ups, they provide an early draft of most of the project’s basic elements, in order, but without everything yet in place. A rough cut provides what some people might call a “prototype” of the project--complete enough to understand, but still early enough to allow students to seek feedback and fine-tune their work as they go.
You can have students create rough cuts on paper or using one of the platforms suggested in Step 3. Once students have their rough cuts, you might have students annotate their infographics to explain their content and design choices using a rhetorical lens. How have the information they have included and the visual means of representation they have chosen worked together? Alternately, you might save these questions for peer review (Step 7, below).
Step 7: Have students peer review each other’s mock-ups and rough cuts along the way:
As with any writing project, peer review of multimodal compositions can provide students with helpful insight into how their project is working, and where they may need to make adjustments.
Especially since infographics seek to convey maximal information with minimal text, student peer reviewers should pay close attention to their initial reaction and comprehension of the infographic. What parts did they clearly understand because of well-chosen graphics or well-placed layout? What aspects of the infographic’s driving question, purpose, or argument might remain unclear upon first glance?
When peer-reviewing infographics, be specific and explicit about the form students’ feedback will take. Should students take notes on the infographics themselves, or on separate documents? Should students present their infographics on paper, or digitally? If they’re to be printed, should students worry about printing in color now, or not until the final draft? These questions depend on a number of factors, including class size and location.
For more on peer review, see Sweetland’s Using Peer Review to Improve Student Writing resource.
Step 8: Have students create final cuts:
Ask students to revise their infographics, to the extent that they can, given the time and resources available, incorporating feedback they’ve received along the way.
Step 9: Assign a final reflection:
Because few students’ infographics are likely to be at an expert level in the short time they have to create them, it can be useful to ask students to submit reflections with their final cuts. These reflections should explain and justify the rhetorical choices they made as they planned, researched, designed, executed, and revised their projects. In other words, this step asks students to make an evidence-based argument about what they were doing and how it met or didn’t meet their aims for the project. You can then use this reflection to inform your own assessment of their projects.
For more on reflection, see Sweetland’s Cultivating Reflection and Metacognition resource.
Step 10: Assessment:
As Step 9 suggests, assessing multimodal composition assignments presents special challenges--are you grading based on who made the best infographic, or whose infographic best reflects the learning goals of the class? Once again, we recommend using consistent terminology throughout this 10-step process; for example, you can crowdsource evaluative criteria from students’ analyses of infographics in Step 2, use these criteria during peer review, and then use them again in a final assessment rubric. For a broader consideration of effective multimodal assessment practices, see Sweetland’s Some Considerations for Multimodal Assessment resource.
Blevins, Brenta. “Visualizing Data through Infographics.” Gayle Morris Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, 14 Dec. 2013, http://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/2013/11/14/visualizing-data-through-infographics/.
Heller, Steven, and Rick Landers. Infographic Designers’ Sketchbooks. Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.
Krum, Randy. Cool Infographic: Effective Communication with Data Visualization and Design. Wiley, 2014.
Lankow, Jason, and Josh Ritchie. Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012.
Maudlin, Sarah K. C. Data Visualizations and Infographics. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.