Data: From Bland to Grand With Infographics

by Laughing Stock on September 8, 2011

When done well, infographics are 30-40 times more likely to be viewed and shared vs. text ~Stew Langille

Today, information graphics surround us in all forms of media: on road signs, magazines, in presentation materials, manuals, transit signs, etc. They illustrate information that would be unwieldy in text form, and act as a visual shorthand for everyday concepts and complex scientific knowledge.

Producing information graphics is fertile ground for Laughing Stock illustrator Robert Pizzo. His distinctive style, use of basic geometric shapes, and strong flat color are hallmarks of his work.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Robert about the way he works with data visualizations:

Q. Some of your current work is focused on infographics, Robert. What prompted you to add that capability to your illustration skills?

A. The first time, someone talked me into it. The next time, I talked someone else into it. About 15 years ago an art director at The Wall Street Journal, who was a steady client, asked me to do a big chart on genetics. I had never done anything like that but the deadline was fast, the client was desperate, and every time I hesitated on the phone the fee went up, so I reluctantly took it on. It was extremely involved and it didn’t turn out bad, but I wasn’t going looking for infographic work after that.

Then a few years ago I was working on a series of illustrations for a regular client. Everything was running smooth but the art director was complaining about having to do something with a horrible looking chart sidebar that didn’t match the rest of the layout. I offered to step in and take a shot at it. His only direction was, “make it look good”.

This time, the data was a bit simpler and I found I enjoyed the challenge of designing a clear, readable bit of info. After that, he started calling me frequently for infographics.

Q. Tell us how information graphics differs from your editorial or interpretive work.

A. It’s very different. With my regular illustration work I always begin traditionally with pencil sketching, refining my work until I have a very tight pencil to scan to Illustrator. Working with a pencil first frees me to take the design of the illustration any place without being restricted by the computers tendency for perfection.

With my infographic work, I go straight to the computer. The reason is, all the type needs to be set first. In this case the data is key and I need to see the ratio of type to open space to determine how much leeway I’ll have with the design. Interestingly, I’ve tried making pencil thumbnails first on infographic assignments but I rarely end up using the ideas. Instead, I like to think of this kind of work as a Rorschach test, where I lay out the info and then look at it and say, “what kind of image does this conjure up? The info boxes kind of look like trucks…” or something like that. With all the obvious differences, I’m still using my own design sense when it comes to graphic shapes, layout and color.

Q. How does research and distillation of information play into your process?

A. One of my first big infographic assignments was a series for an entire special issue of a magazine. Since I was new to the process I was worried I’d be compiling the chart info myself. I realized then that I really should have paid attention all those years ago in math class. My fears were unfounded though, because the way it works is this: clients have already done the basic compiling of info and know what they want to convey. The problem is, the Excel program they’ve used to create the graphs is lacking, to say the very least. And it only interprets information a couple of basic ways, it can’t look at the info creatively, which is where I come in. I can also see where a chart is being redundant and I can simplify the information for a faster read and add some illustration to it.

Conclusion: Infographics, information design, or data visualization present complex information, data, & knowledge quickly and clearly to communicate concepts, tell stories, and educate visually. No wonder infographics are enjoying a substantial uptrend and clients are eager to work with talented & knowledgeable artists to help tell their stories.

Next Steps: Hire Robert for your next gig:  Infographics or otherwise.



{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Hile September 13, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Good interview and thanks for sharing, Robert. I agree that infographics are becoming a more important communication medium as the pace of business (along with web visitors’ expectations) speeds up.

Lynn September 13, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Robert, my family currently runs 2 retail businesses. I wonder if, using infographics, you can chart our customers: 75% are certifialby insane, 20% are lottery-frienzied lunatics who can’t wait to hit it big so they never have to shop in our stores again and 5% are customers I don’t hide from on a regular basis!

Robert Pizzo September 14, 2011 at 11:06 am

My wife works in the retail business as a design consultant so I really hear ya on this. I’ve offered to make a display sign for them that reads, “THE CUSTOMER IS USUALLY NUTS”.
Would love to work on that graphic for you!

Ken Eichenbaum September 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Oh. So THAT’s what you do. I’m searching my library for a book on visual presentations that may interest you. More later. Great interview. K

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