How to turn your data into high-impact illustrations

publication date: Mar 19, 2012
author/source: Janet Gadeski
They're colourful, they're trendy and they pack a punch when it comes to presenting data. I'm talking about infographics - those wonderful illustrations that, at their best, turn dense paragraphs of numeric information into memorable pictures.

Communications VP Kerry Longpré led The Calgary Foundation into that new visual world with its 2011 community checkup report, Calgary's Vital Signs. Community foundations use the Vital Signs process to measure the vitality of their communities, identify significant trends and assign grades in areas they consider critical to quality of life. As you can imagine, a Vital Signs report is all about data.

"The indicators are often the pithy pieces - our energy footprint for example," Longpré says. "In previous Vital Signs reports, we were producing them in paragraph blocks, which were a bit daunting. The grades created conversation, but the indicators were a lot to plough through."

One infographic = three paragraphs

With such a data-heavy report, one of the Foundation's goals was to make it feel accessible and readable. To accomplish that, Longpré needed a new way to present the facts. Juice Creative, a Calgary company, introduced the idea of infographics. Though they're a quicker way to present data, she says, they take longer than a written report to develop.

"Within each issue area, there were four or five indicators," she explains, "so we were able to choose those in each area that lent themselves to infographics. Each one presents what would be three paragraphs of information. It was a huge amount of work for Juice."

Test with stakeholders

Youth unemployment infographicIndividual infographics had to tell the true story about a key issue area. "That's where we sometimes struggled as to how pertinent or expressive each of the infographics was," Longpré reveals.

Take, for example, this infographic highlighting Calgary's youth unemployment rate against the background of a Slurpee cup, and stacking it up against other years, the national and provincial rates, and overall unemployment rates.

"A number in our group thought it was perhaps condescending to youth, too simple," she explains.

"Yet a number felt it was terrific. The debate raged. I was one who did think it was fun and used well."

Fortunately the Foundation works regularly with a wide range of youth stakeholders. Longpré ran that graphic past them. When they didn't feel insulted, the infographic stayed in the report.

Picturing a trend

Workers per retiree

This one presents a simple concept: the declining ratio between wage earners and retirees, shown by a dwindling number of briefcases beside the wheeled suitcase that represents the retiree.

Consolidated graphic statements

Financial well-being infographic

And this excerpt from the "Financial Well-Being" infographic shows several indicators: a comparison of Calgary's poverty rates in two different years with the national average, a comparison of Calgary's property tax and utility charges with the lowest and highest in Canada, and a stack of median family incomes that readily shows how Calgary compares with national and provincial rates, while also demonstrating Calgary's decline between 2008 and 2009.

Next week: Hear from the designer about the high potential of infographics, the ethics of their use, and how to get started on a low budget.

Download the entire report at

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