Once you’ve picked a topic for your infographic and gathered your data, the next step is deciding how you want to display your data.
In large part, the type of information you’re presenting is going to govern the type of visual layout you choose. You need to choose a style that’s going to present your data in a straightforward and easy-to-read way.
There are 6 broad categories for visualizing data, which I’m going to break down into an in-depth 6-part series to help you decide what styles are best for you. In this first part, I’ll talk about some of the basic types of data visualization, and in the upcoming parts of this series, I’ll look at the categories of information, concept, strategy, metaphor, and compound visualization.
Let’s say that you’ve collected data on the most popular car make and model for each state. You know the top 3 cars for all 50 states, and you think that your data suggests something really interesting about auto trends in the US. Right now, though, you just have a data set and no clear story.
Data visualization helps you tell a story by presenting quantitative data in a schematic form. By that I mean that all your data is presented objectively in a chart or graph, either with or without axes. Data visualization can be turned into an infographic if you add images and icons, but on its own, it’s a stripped down presentation of your data set that should make sense to your viewers.
Let’s look at some of the specific data visualization formats and talk about data sets that are particularly suited to each type.
What Is It? Data is on a spectrum, usually presented from right to left or sometimes from top to bottom. In certain cases, you might be able to present your continuum for left to right or bottom to top, but in general, you want to lay it out in the direction that your readers’ eyes will naturally go.
Best Use: A continuum would be a good way to present a model that has chronological steps or phases, such as “The Stages of Butterfly Metamorphosis”. You can also use it to plot data points on a spectrum, such that one end of the spectrum represents one thing and the other end represents its antithesis (such as pro-firearm restrictions and anti-firearm restrictions, with different politicians’ names added based on the extremity of their views).
What Is It? Information is divided into horizontal rows and vertical columns, and data is shared based on the intersections of the horizontal and vertical.
Best Use: Tables work best when you have two variables. For instance, a table could list different popular vacation destinations in the first column and different price points going across the top row, such as “Average Hotel Cost”, “Average Meal Cost”, “Average Drink Cost”.
What Is It? Data is divided into the four quadrants of the x and y axis.
Best Use: This format can be used to display a matrix where there are 2 different dimensions and 4 different outcomes based on the different combinations of the dimensions. For instance, one of your dimensions might be students with brown eyes or non-brown eyes, and your other dimension might be students with brown hair or non-brown hair.
What Is It? Data is divided up by percentages (or “slices”) of a circle.
Best Use: Pie charts are used when you want to depict different portions of a whole. A pie chart might show what percent of the average US family’s household income is allotted to different categories, such as food, housing, health care, and entertainment.
What Is It? Data is organized by x and y coordinates.
Best Use: Line charts are great for time series data and displaying trends, rather than focusing on individual values. Often, the x axis represents time and the y axis is change, so the viewer is seeing change over time. The x-axis might show the time of day (with each increment being an hour) while the y axis shows the average number of Americans on Facebook at that time.
What Is It? This is similar to the line chart, but it uses colors, textures, or hatching to distinguish different types of data and is often used to represent cumulated totals.
Best Use: Like line charts, area charts are great for time series data and displaying trends, but it’s better to use with fewer area to compare, since they overlap in a way that line chart don’t. An area chart might show the average sales of ice cream, pizza, and soda by seasons, with seasons on the x-axis, sales on the y-axis, and the 3 categories divided into 3 different-colored “areas”.
What Is It? Bar charts also use an x and y axis, but instead of being continuous like a line chart, the x axis divides your information into groups.
Best Use: Bar charts are great for comparing data. For instance, if you took a poll on which Top 40 musicians respondents thought were most down-to-earth, each poll option could be a different bar, and the number of people who voted for each musician would dictate the height of the bar.
What Is It? Although they look similar to bar charts, histograms plot quantitative data within ranges, not distinct groups.
Best Use: Opt for a histogram instead of a bar chart if you are displaying continuous data. You could use a histogram to plot the heights of a sampling of people, with each bar representing a range of heights.
What Is It? In a scatterplot, each piece of data is represented by an individual point, which is plotted along the x and y axes.
Best Use: This type of chart is particularly useful for visualizing distribution trends in a data set. A scatter plot could show the distribution of annual salaries based on years of work experience, with the x-axis representing years and the y-axis representing salary.
Tukey Box Plot
What Is It? Also sometimes referred to as a box-and-whisker diagram, a Tukey box plot groups numerical data in boxed quartiles, with outliers being depicted as individual points on the “whiskers”.
Best Use: Data that’s well-suited for a Histogram is often also good for a Tukey Box Plot. It’s helpful for showing how the data is skewing, proving an effective overview of the data distribution. For instance, if you wanted to look at which airlines have the most delays on average, you could use a Tukey box plot to see how the quartiles of delay times stack up against each other.
What Is It? This is a visual representation of the spectrum of a frequency.
Best Use: This type of data visualization has a very specific and limited use: to visually display sound or light. A spectrogram could be used to illustrate the Doppler effect, where sound wave peaks become condensed as the source of a sound moves closer to the listener.
Keep in mind that all the data representations described above can be used to give your infographic a basic structure: they are the “bones” of your project. When you begin translating these types of representations into infographics, think about the types of visual cues and icons you could use to enhance the viewers’ understanding. We’ll delve into this more in the upcoming parts of this guide.