And why traditional infographics won’t work on the social web

I wrote this article with my colleague Jason Tomassini. It was originally published on, in AMS Digital Trends Index.

We consume media faster and with more starts and stops than ever before. Audiences make split decisions as to whether they are interested in content and those split decisions determine how well they comprehend information. This is especially true for mobile audiences, who process content faster than ever through their news feeds.

At Atlantic Media Strategies, we are constantly thinking about how to plan the right content for the right audience on the right platforms. One thing is certain, though. In this environment, journalists and designers need to collaborate more closely to build content fit for the social web.

In that spirit, we’re brought together two people from our team, Jason Tomassini, on our editorial team, and Nguyet Vuong, on our product team, to outline their approach to creating effective data visualizations for today’s mobile and social web in a conversation they had last week.

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Jason: Given all the different ways people consume information now, it seems that the context you design for is just as important as the content itself. A graphic that is effective on a web page might not be effective within a Twitter stream or in an email inbox. Nguyet, what do you look for when visualizing data for the social web?

Nguyet: The goal is to deliver information quickly, and efficiently. Most people on social platforms scan content as they scroll through their feed, so it’s important not to overload them with information. To design for this behavior, a memorable graphic is short, specific, concrete, and has a good balance of text and visual elements. At the very least, people should grasp the information within a few seconds. Ideally, the graphic inspires people to learn more and to share with others because the graphic is almost always a part of a larger conversation/story.

Jason: That’s really interesting because, as an editor, I want to tell a story any time that I’m communicating any kind of information. With that comes a tendency to try to include as much relevant information as possible, while still retaining a clear narrative for the audience.

That may be a good approach for an article or an infographic that the audience can spend time with, but it’s probably not the best approach for content that lives within a social feed.

Nguyet, I know there’s some research about how people retain visual information that influences your design approach. Can you talk about that a bit?

Nguyet: Gladly! From the results of cognitive psychology research, we understand that the brain makes shortcuts all the time to quickly make sense out of the world around us. Yet, only recently has there been research specifically on how audiences recall and comprehend static visualizations. In this Storybench article, John Wihbey and Michelle Borkin discussed herlatest studies testing 2,070 single-panel visualizations.

According to her results, the most consistent attributes that make a visualization memorable are the inclusion of colors, human recognizable objects, and clear titles and text as key elements. Another key finding is the benefit of redundancy — the more times the same information is repeated in text, and graphics, the higher the rate of recall. Perhaps the most interesting thing about these findings is that the visualizations that are memorable in a second, are also often the most memorable after longer time spent viewing.

We thought that was too interesting to not try it out ourselves, so we tested it internally here at AMS. And sure enough, our results are consistent with Ms. Borkin’s.

Why don’t you give it a try, Jason, and tell me what you remember. First, take a look at the graphic for 10 seconds and write down what you remember, in as much detail as possible. (Try this for yourself before moving on. When you’re ready, click the play button for each test).

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Jason: When I look at graphic #1, the main thing I remember is that 42 percent of board members for Norway’s largest companies are women, which is way more than in the United States. It makes me wonder what we should be learning from Norway about gender equity. As for graphic #2, I remember that the Bible is exponentially more read than any other book in history, including a Harry Potter book.

It’s interesting because, for the books graphic, my first instinct as an editor may be to help the audience comprehend the full list, from top to bottom. But the most important takeaway is that the Bible is so much more popular than any other book. So a visualization like this one, that highlights that one key point, is going to be more effective on the social web. And even if I look at that graphic for one second, I’ll still have the same takeaway.

These are really great examples of how communications and design goals may differ from traditional editorial goals.

Nguyet: When participants were asked what they recalled in graphic #1, one of the responses was “Percentage of women in government of various countries. Norway led with a bit under 50%.” For graphic #2, participants’ responses included “Most read books. Holy bible. Quotes of Mao Ze Tung. Harry Potter.” I thought the use of the book titles in the bar graph is clever and a great redundancy technique to help people remember. Pretty powerful for a ten-second long, at-a-glance test.

Jason: This research really influenced our thinking for a recent project with our partner, the Consumer Technology Association. We developed data snapshots for CTA’s annual holiday shopping research.

Nguyet, can you explain the thinking behind our CTA designs?

Data snapshot

Nguyet: Sure! Before we designed anything, we looked at the target audience and communications goals. CTA wanted to reach tech enthusiasts on the go. Regardless of whether this audience works for retailers, startups, or the media, they are on social platforms for quick informational snapshots. We had a small window of opportunity to offer them something useful. Our goal was to give them an understanding of the most popular audio tech gifts this season. For those in the retail business, they could use this information to compare to items that will be most marketed this holiday season. Alternatively, for tech consumers, they could make comparisons to their own shopping list.

Next, we designed these data snapshots using the same principles discussed in Borkin’s studies. We used a subtle holiday theme and icons to help people recall the message. The size of the ornaments relatively corresponded to the percentage of the audio items featured — which is a subtle design decision but, in context of the percentage number, is also a redundancy technique. Together with the icons, data points and description text, the whole message is concrete and succinct, and this held up in pre-launch tests with consumers.

Jason: Thanks Nguyet. That was a fun project to work on because it brought strong editorial and design principles together. Even if it might seem scary or foreign, editors should be working more closely with designers to make sure they are meeting audience needs. Some tips that I found helpful:

1. Collaborate from the outset of the project.

In too many organizations there’s a “hand-off” from editorial staff to design staff. The best results come from working in lockstep.

2. Recalibrate your view of how a story is consumed. The article format is no longer the dominant form for getting information.

3. Take a “Form follows function” approach. Put the communications goal for the audience before the format of the content.

Nguyet, what kind of tips do you have for working with us writerly folks?


It’s hard to design without content because every element in a visualization exist for the purpose of clarifying the message.

When designers and editors collaborate, two brains are better than one! With editors, designers should make sure to:

1. Align on the communication goals of the visualization. Alignment on objectives, target audiences, and emotional tones of the piece upfront will make it easier to give and receive design feedback later.

2. Brainstorm and sketch together.

Sketching is a great way to explore concepts quickly without setting on a solution. It can give you both some ideas of how much text and pictograms can fit in a small space.

3. Ask for feedback often. Use the ten seconds test to elicit feedback from different people, and iterate until the visualization message is clear.

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