Data is all around us – and savvy designers are transforming it into jaw-dropping images that also tell a story. Alice Ross charts their progress

We’re in the middle of an information revolution: everywhere around us, mountains of data are being generated, and governments and organisations are increasingly releasing huge datasets, covering everything from weather patterns to spending data for us to pore over.

And just as journalists have become specialists in mining these huge releases for stories covering subjects from MPs expenses to what local councils are spending their funds on, a select few designers have applied their imagination and talent to translating data into crisp and fascinating graphics, becoming experts in data visualisation and infographics.

Put simply, these are images that tell a compelling story; designs that reveal something about the world around us. Often, they’re based on maps, charts and graphs, but above all they transform dry, impenetrable numbers or facts into absorbing and instantly legible graphics. Of course, they don’t have to be static: many of the most effective data visualisation projects are interactive, often requiring the viewer to click on points to reveal more information.

Data visualisation is an increasingly high-profile genre of design, particularly in editorial and corporate design. Since its UK launch in 2009, Wired has included infographics – such as Paul Butt’s mobile phone chart – as a key mode of visual storytelling. It has won high-profile editorial design awards for this – and infographics, alongside other data/graphics mashups, provided the focus at the recent FutureEverything festival in Manchester (futureeverything.org).

Major newspapers are now hiring specialist designers and journalists to provide them with a constant stream of diagrams, charts, visualisations and interactives as an accompaniment to written articles, both in print and online – and sometimes the visualisations even supplant traditional articles entirely. And as potential clients become more familiar with the medium through these channels, they are more likely to want to use elements of data visualisation in their commissions, whether these are company reports, websites or ads.

Designers are constantly finding new sources of data and ways of interpreting them, making this one of the most exciting frontiers of design.

At one end of the spectrum, journalist and designer David McCandless (davidmccandless.com) mines official databases and statistics releases for his highly influential brand of graphic journalism, catalogued in the book, Information is Beautiful. At the other, designer Nicholas Felton (feltron.com) has catapulted himself to the attention of the design press with his personal Annual Reports, produced each year since 2005 using information he has meticulously gathered on his daily life.

Deciding on the story you want to tell is an essential starting point, says David: “To be honest, I rarely start with data. I usually begin with a concept, idea or a story. And then, [I] seek out data related to that subject.”

However, the underlying data is “ultra important”, he says: “I need to work out, understand and structure the data and information before I can even begin to design. That usually takes about 75 per cent of the time.

15 per cent is spent on design.” The last five per cent is “spent fretting in crazy perfectionist mode that I’ve got every single detail correct.”

Paul Butt (www.sectiondesign.co.uk) agrees that getting the right data is key: “The challenge is getting good information and research to begin with. I find it a lot easier to have too much information than not enough.”

He adds: “Another part of data visualisation is you’re not really in full control of it – the information you have to work with, and you can’t really change it or tweak it to how you’d want it to be, as that’s a bit dishonest.”

But the data is just the starting point: the designer needs to analyse the data and think laterally about how to present it. Nicholas Felton says: “My chief concern is that the curation of the data and form of display combine to reveal something interesting and to ultimately tell a story.”

He adds: “Within the graphic, representations of data should be 1:1, so if I take measurements from the graphics it will share the same proportions as the numbers. It should be highly scannable and the key points of the graphic should be easy to find.”