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                                                                                                            February 2015 / Issue #20

Visualizing Big Data: Conveying Complex Information Beautifully

By Mike Hamers, Lightspeed  – Edited by Kris Green, Turn Words 2 Money

Many phrases have been thrown around in the world of information graphics. Infographics. Data visualization. Information design. While some might argue about exactly what kind of information belongs in each category, I prefer to acknowledge the fact that most of these groups overlap. So instead of strictly defining terms, let’s take a look at the overall concept of showing information as a visual image.

The term "data visualization" is the overarching word for all these concepts – any graphic that displays and explains information, whether that be data or words, in a visual way.
Infographics are different because information graphics have a flow to them.
They're data visualizations that present complex information quickly and clearly.
Think of maps, signs, and charts used by statisticians or computer scientists: Wherever you have deep data presented in visual shorthand, you have an infographic.

Infographics are important because they change the way people find and experience information-based stories – especially now, when more and more infographics are being used to bolster editorial content on the web. Infographics create a new way of seeing the world of data. They help communicate complex ideas in a clear and often beautiful way.

As the world gets more complex and more data emerges, information graphics are more useful than ever. Data visualization often deals with an enormous amount of data, with the goal of showing patterns. Huge amounts of data are very difficult to sort through, but infographics make complex information presentable and digestible to a general audience.

An easy-to-read illustration helps tell a story and makes data points easier to understand. Infographics are more powerful when they are clear and straightforward as well as beautiful and engaging.  The aesthetic design draws the viewer in; the information helps the viewer analyze and understand the data being presented.  So, taking into account all the caveats about overlap discussed above, how do you create a powerful infographic?  
To make an infographic:
Present complex information quickly and clearly
Integrate words and graphics to reveal information, patterns or trends
Make the visual easier to understand than words alone
Create beautiful and engaging relevant images.

History of Infographics.

Infographics predate the web by 32,000 years. Cave paintings from 30,000 BC easily could be called the first infographics as they depicted animals and other resources in the surrounding area. As visual representations of data, cave drawing certainly qualify as infographics. The same can be said for Egyptian hieroglyphics. Around 3000 BC, ancient Egyptians used these ancient infographics to tell stories of life, work and religion.

The modern history of infographics may start with William Playfair, an early innovator in Statistical Graphics. In 1786, he published The Commercial and Political Atlas.  This resource displayed many Bar charts, Line graphs and Histograms representing the economy in England.  He followed this up with the first Area chart as well as the first Pie chart in 1801.

In 1857, English nurse Florence Nightingale used information graphics to change history and persuade Queen Victoria to improve conditions in military hospitals. Specifically, she used the Coxcomb chart shown below, which is a combination of stack Bar and Pie charts (today called a “rose” or “polar” chart).  Nightingale’s chart showed the number and causes of deaths during each month of the Crimean War with preventable diseases in blue, wounds in red, and other causes in black.

Another big step in the history of infographics occurred in 1933, when Harry Beck created the first map of the London Tube showing only lines to depict public transit routes and stations. This was an important development, since this chart moved visual diagrams into everyday life.

Similarly, to simplify things for travelers and tourists, in 1972 Otl Aicher created a set of pictograms for the Munich Olympics that featured stylized human figures. These infographics became incredibly popular and influenced the design of many public signs today including the generic stick figure crossing the street on a Walk sign.

In 1975, while teaching at Princeton, Edward Tufte developed a seminar on statistical graphics with John Tukey, a pioneer in the field of information design. Tufte later self-published Visual Display in 1982. This bold step established Tufte as an infographics expert, and resulted in his being dubbed “the father of infographics.”  Recent infographic history includes the advent of chart creation through office-oriented software, particularly in Excel and PowerPoint. This explosion of easy-to-use data visualization tools led to an expansion of infographics in academia and the popularization of business intelligence.

We can solve your "big data" challenge

Currently web-based data visualization tools can make it easy for almost anyone to create infographics such as motion graphics and interactive data visualizations.

However, a really well designed dynamic infographic takes a lot of forethought, organizing, data research and/or analysis, as well as the ability to approach the analytical information in a fun and creative way.  I've solved many of these visual changes for a host of clients including scientific, corporate training planning, decision trees, teaching aids, industrial information, food pairing, electrical and data flow diagrams, and more.  Let us know if Lightspeed Commercial Arts can help you solve your “big data challenge”.    

If you'd like to read and see more on INFOGRAPHICS, please click here to link to an earlier newsletter on this important topic. –– Mike

Mike Hamers is an award-winning graphic designer, illustrator and author who lives and works in Niwot, CO. He has been the owner of Lightspeed Design for 23 years. During that time he has won over 20 national and international awards for his logo designs, stationery, packaging, book cover and font designs.

Mike has had his illustrations in Wired magazine and brochure design work in "The Little Book of Layouts: Good Design and Why It Works".  Mike enjoys working with all sizes of companies – from solopreneur's startups to large national companies. His broad experience crosses most industries including bio- and nano-science, biomedical devices, technology and manufacturing, software, foodservice, and more. Mike's comprehensive design and illustration portfolio is viewable at

Mike Hamers, Owner of Lightspeed Commercial Arts, Designer and Illustrator

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Editing and Proofing by
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  Turn Words 2 Money

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