Fundraising’s new not-so-secret weapon: the infographic

As you struggle to gain your bearings amid frenetic, cluttered surroundings, your eye is suddenly riveted to a fixed point just a few inches away — and what you see before you is truly a head-turner, stylishly outfitted and displaying every sign of being whip-smart. Think we’re talking about an alluring stranger who just walked into a busy New York City café? Not quite. Meet one of the data visualization scene’s hottest stars: the infographic.

Pet Overpopulation Challenge infographic
Source: Found Animals Foundation

As any experienced nonprofit professional can attest, successful fundraising requires the judicious and ongoing use of a vast arsenal of tools — the more you can bring to the table, the greater your competitive advantage. Infographics are playing an increasingly integral role in the materials used to “sell” an organization and/or the cause it is trying to promote. You’ve probably been seeing them more and more frequently lately, and perhaps have even thought about trying to create one of your own. But without prior experience, how can you help to ensure that yours has the effect you intend it to, rather than ending up as flotsam in the fierce scramble for donor eyeballs and dollars? My hope is that this blog post takes some of the guesswork out of that question…a good graphic designer can help you with the rest. The following tips are culled from a wide variety of sources: a full-day seminar with data visualization guru Edward Tufte, a webinar given by nonprofit-sector software consulting firm Idealware, extensive research on the web, and my own personal experience as an infographic consumer.

So, then, what exactly are the chief ingredients of a good infographic?

  • A clearly defined target audience: A message is only as good as its ability to reach — and influence — the people it’s intended for. Think carefully about whose attention you most want to attract…that will directly influence how and where you present your message.

  • Well-chosen and well-researched facts: It’s important to understand that infographics are not intended to be neutral — they are by their very nature a tool of persuasion, carefully crafted to promote a particular opinion. That being said, they should always be grounded in solid research and accurate data from reputable sources, reflecting honesty and integrity on the part of their creators. While the necessity of being truthful and not misleading your audience cannot be overstated, it’s important to be selective about which information you include. Barraging viewers with myriad facts and figures that make their eyes glaze over won’t help anyone. Include only the data that’s most relevant to your audience and integral to the strength of your argument, and do away with the rest. If what you’re left with omits significant facts that would undermine the credibility of your argument, go back to the drawing board and develop another message that stands truthfully on its own while still supporting your original objectives.

  • Logical information flow: Even the most elaborate works of art often start out as rough sketches, and infographics are, at their heart, about relaying compelling information that clearly supports a specific point of view. What are you trying to get across? What specific change(s) in knowledge, attitudes, or behaviors do you want to inspire in viewers? What core pieces of quantitative and qualitative data will naturally lead them to the conclusions you want them to draw? Mapping out these elements using simple text blocks connected by arrows will help lay the groundwork for a message that can be easily and quickly understood.

  • An intuitive, consistent, and selective color scheme: Color plays a significant role in the way people perceive information, both intellectually and emotionally. Color is a helpful tool in visually linking similar concepts, so when choosing colors for your infographic components — whether for words, numbers, or line art — make sure that each color is applied only to elements that represent the same idea or that share the same symbolism. Also consider the tone or mood you want to set with your message, and select colors that support (rather than conflict with) that tone or mood. Whenever possible, pick colors that naturally would be associated with the subjects to which they’re being applied so that their meaning is obvious to your viewers without a legend or key. But make sure your color palette isn’t too busy: an overly diverse array of colors can be overwhelming and off-putting to viewers, and can obscure your message. It’s also critical to avoid colors that make your data hard to read, such as light text against a light background, dark text against a dark background, or intensely garish hues that overshadow other elements or divert attention away from the larger message.

  • Thematically appropriate, well proportioned, and attractive visuals: Infographic icons that directly correspond with the subject matter are often the cleverest and most memorable, but they don’t necessarily need to be complicated. In fact, simpler is often better — a simple graphic is both easier to create and easier to interpret. Silhouettes of objects, animals, or people are a particularly good example of visually appealing yet streamlined, accessible graphics. Subject-specific icons also can be used creatively to demonstrate quantitative differences in a particular measure between, say, two different points in time or two different sets of circumstances. In these cases, it’s best to use icons that are identical in every respect except size; use the smaller version of the image to represent the smaller number and the larger version of the image to represent the larger number…and if you can correlate the proportion of the images’ size difference directly with the proportion of the numerical difference in the data you’re measuring, so much the better! Everything I’ve advised regarding the selection of images can and should also be applied to the selection of fonts: most importantly, fonts should be clearly legible. Lastly, make your imagery, typography, and layout as professional-looking as possible — an infographic’s visual appeal is often the “hook” in getting viewers to focus their attention on the core message.

  • Strategic placement of critical information: Depending on the visual orientation of your infographic, the viewer’s focus will tend to gravitate toward specific locations. In the case of a circular framework, for example, the viewer’s eye is pulled toward the middle; thus, the most important data should be concentrated there. In the case of a horizontal (left-to-right) orientation, the extreme left and extreme right draw the most visual attention and therefore should contain the most vital data. Similarly, in the case of a vertical (top-to-bottom) orientation, the very top and the very bottom stand out the most and therefore should contain the most essential information.

The most powerful infographics are those that are easy to interpret while also being visually engaging, imparting their message with precision and speed. Viewers shouldn’t feel like they need a PhD to understand what they’re looking at, but rather, like they’ve suddenly learned something important and surprising while seeing something beautiful. At their best, infographics are a perfect marriage of art and science.

Dogs and Cats: Pets and Beyond infographic
Source: GOOD Magazine

A couple of web sites that can help get you started in creating infographics for free are Infogr.am and Easel.ly.

APRIL 2013 UPDATE: Idealware has just released a free guide, Infographics for Outreach, Advocacy, and Marketing: From Data to Design, to help nonprofits understand and create infographics. The guide covers what defines an infographic, provides tips for creating one that presents data in a compelling and easy-to-understand way, and includes specific examples of infographics illustrating these concepts.

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