Fortunately, there are useful free tools that can help you get these proportions right: Google’s Public Data Store (bit.ly/aex4x0), ManyEyes (bit.ly/hAt24e) or Tableau Public (tableausoftware.com/public) are all more sophisticated than Adobe Illustrator’s Graph tool, though this can be handy for smaller datasets.

Data visualisation is all about explaining something to your audience, so putting everything in perspective is vital. Paul Butt says such pieces should explore “the relationship between the different sets of information within the graphic. There should be a connection between everything you’re trying to show.”

He adds: “There has to be some context in there, too – you can throw big numbers around but unless you have something else to compare them to, it’s difficult to show how big or small those figures actually are.”

Design studio Iconomical (iconomical.com) recently created a huge interactive data visualisation based on spending data from the Tanzanian government. Elizabeth Turner says that rigorous analysis of the data and the project’s requirements was essential.

“When you look at information from different perspectives, it becomes easy to see what makes sense, where the interesting stories are,” she says.
Elizabeth adds that it’s important to understand how the audience is likely to interact with the visualisation.

“People don’t want to spend too long interpreting an image, but they can be very sophisticated in how they interact,” she explains. “The visualisations should be clear and straightforward, and try to bring out the complexity in the information through the user interface.”

Digging for the truth

Paul Butt echoes the need for infographics to reward the user. “I think layering of information can work really well,” he says. “Ideally, you should be able to have a general idea of what the graphic is trying to say from a first glance, but then you can look deeper and find out more.”

On the surface, the attributes that data visualisation demands – a head for figures, an ability to find meaning in a mass of data – aren’t a natural fit for most designers. But several key skills that data visualisers need are also the core skills of a designer. First and foremost, there’s storytelling. There’s the ability to rank information and communicate complex notions in striking, legible images. There’s an emphasis on precision and proportion.

Data visualisation is having a moment right now, but its clarity and ability to make complex ideas accessible mean it’s a useful weapon to add to your creative arsenal. So whether you’re interested in charting your local council’s spending or mapping your choice of lunch venues, it’s worth breaking out the spreadsheets and starting to explore what you can do with infographics.

A lifetime in data

The release each spring of Nicholas Felton’s personal Annual Report has become a calendar event in the graphic design press. This year rather than surveying his own journeys, meals and playlists he analysed thousands of slides, postcards, calendars and documents to create a clean-looking, elegant data visualisation of the life of his father, Gordon, who died last year.

“I spent four weeks on this year’s Annual Report before I felt it was doing a decent job of representing my father,” Nicholas says. “My father led a fascinating life, so my challenge was to find data avenues into this story.”

He’s clearly succeeded: out of all the pie charts, maps and statistics emerges a detailed and touching portrait of a lifetime’s achievements, adventures, relationships and habits. It’s available as a book from his site.