Information graphics, or infographics, include a wide-ranging category of visuals intended to present data and information in an accessible format. Quantitative infographics represent measurable data in formats like data visualizations, graphs, charts, statistical maps, and numeric tables. When successful, these infographics serve as cognitive aids to enhance understanding, assist in problem solving, and support decision making. Effective visual design is a key consideration in creating data visualizations or infographics for eLearning.

Why data visualization works for eLearning

Quantitative infographics are effective for eLearning because they condense and organize—visualize—large amounts of data that would otherwise overwhelm the human mind. By transforming abstract data into a concrete form, infographics help an audience detect patterns, make comparisons, track changes, and see relationships. In addition, effective infographics clarify ideas, inform, and tell stories with data. Interactive versions allow for exploration and discovery. All of this serves to enhance the appeal, comprehension, and retention of information, ideas, and concepts.

Encoding and decoding

A quantitative infographic encodes the data values into visual attributes, such as color, shape, angle, size, and position. For example, the shape and length of a bar in a column graph indicates its value. The color of the column represents the category of data.

In a reverse operation, learners use these visual attributes to decode the infographic. They perceive the shapes, colors, and sizes of the visual elements and translate them into the values they represent. An effective infographic, therefore, must have a visual design that can easily be decoded by the audience.

12 tips for better infographic design

Any visual communication can be improved with an understanding of design principles that help ensure viewers correctly perceive and interpret the elements of a graphic. To be effective, an infographic should accurately communicate its message, attract attention with its aesthetic appeal, and be visually efficient so it is easy to scan and perceive. Let's look at some ways to accomplish this in infographic design.

Figure 1: An effective infographic accomplishes three goals

  1. Find your focal point: Just as with instructional design, you need to know the instructional objective of the infographic, your purpose or goal in using this format, and what you want your audience to know or do. This will help you identify what is most important in the infographic, which will become your focal point.
  2. Establish a visual hierarchy: When you identify the focus, you can determine the order in which the infographic elements should be viewed. Establish what your audience needs to see first, second, and third. Then make the most important information visually prominent.
    You can direct learners’ eyes to the focal point through positioning (place at the top or top left of the screen), using a bright color, scaling the element so it is larger than everything else, or using a visual cue like an arrow. If you want learners to notice the title of an infographic first, position it at the top in large, boldface text. If you want one bar of a bar graph to be the key for comparisons, color the bar in a bright, contrasting hue.
  3. Choose the best chart type: When selecting the most effective type of graph or chart, consider:
    1. The format that best fits the data;
    2. What you want the audience to interpret from the visualization; and
    3. A format that is familiar to your audience. 
      The most familiar formats are those you consistently see in the mass media.
  4. Provide context: Learners are more likely to understand an infographic when words provide the context of what the data is about. Conventional ways to do this are by including any of the following: title, subtitle, data labels, descriptions, and explanations. This accompanying text clarifies the data and points the viewer in the right direction from the start.
  5. Optimize visual discrimination: Making it easy for learners to discriminate between visual elements helps them accurately interpret the infographic. To show a difference between two sets of data or to make one element stand out, select colors that are well separated on the color wheel. For example, blue and purple may be difficult for some to discriminate. Blue and orange are not. Another way to improve visual discrimination is to use a clean and legible typeface with letters that are easy to differentiate from each other.
  6. Design for accessibility: To ensure your designs are accessible to all, do not rely only on color as a visual cue. Rather, use an attribute in addition to color, such as shape or shading marks, to differentiate between visual elements. Labels may also work. The goal is to ensure that the infographics can be understood by those with color vision impairments.
  7. Support quick scanning: How can you reduce the time it takes for learners to visually scan an infographic? One way is to avoid splitting their attention between the graphic and the legend. Whenever possible, place labels within the infographic so that learners can have all the information they need in one place. For images, use icons rather than photographs to promote quick scanning. Simple icons have less visual information than photos, so they take less time to perceive.
  8. Represent only the data you need: Consider whether visualization is necessary. If you want viewers to compare individual values, it’s possible that a simple table with numbers will be more effective than a graph. A table is an organizational tool rather than a new visual representation that needs decoding. On the other hand, if you are dealing with a large dataset, visualization is probably best.
    An adjunct to this is to consider the amount of data you need to show. If you have access to an overwhelming amount of data, go back to the root purpose or goal. You may be able to enhance the meaning of the data by limiting how much you represent.
  9. Be accurate: When designing a quantitative infographic, you will be interpreting numerical data. In the translation process that we call design, the data can get distorted. Check with others to make sure your infographic is not unintentionally misleading. Provide viewers with an inconspicuous scale in the background to support accurate interpretation of graphs—and when using a scale, ensure it starts with zero.
  10. Design in 2-D, not 3-D: In general, avoid three-dimensional design formats for two-dimensional graphs. The third dimension does not represent an additional value, so it becomes a distracting and unnecessary visual cue. In fact, the perspective displayed with a third dimension can distort accuracy, as shown in Figure 2, a pie chart, where every wedge represents 25 percent, but the ones that appear closer also appear larger.

    Figure 2: In this pie chart, the closer wedges appear larger, even though all four segments are the same size

  11. Use pie charts to represent relative values: A pie chart shows the proportions of each part to the whole. But there is a problem with asking viewers to accurately judge the wedges of the chart. People have difficulty accurately judging area and angles, skills needed to correctly detect the value of a wedge. Even when the value is placed directly on the wedge, it may not look correct. Therefore, use a pie chart only when you need to display approximate or relative values.
  12. Order the display to promote meaning: The order in which you present data affects how audience members interpret it. When the visual elements of a graph are in a random order, it is more difficult to detect patterns and understand relationships. But when you present data in a logical array, such as least to greatest or chronologically, it’s easier to interpret.

Information graphics have the potential to support eLearning by clarifying ideas and concepts, providing access to large sets of data, and engaging the audience. It’s worth taking the time to plan your infographic designs carefully—and take other steps to improve your infographics. Determine your objective and identify what you want the audience to do with the information. Then translate the data into a visual representation that will help the audience achieve your goal through excellent design choices.

Connie Malamed is the eLearning Coach. Visit her website to download a free visual design checklist and access more visual design and eLearning resources.