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Flavoring a project with a little illustrative flair, is a temptation of many who design infographics. After all, you are tasked with taking information and statistics and trying to make people care enough to notice them by visualizing it. But how much is too much when it comes to adding your own personal illustration style in a graphic? And, can your illustration style possibly compromise the very data you wanted to communicate? Illustrations can play a crucial role in an infographic, but you have to make sure they are appropriate to the content and don't steal the show. Here are a few things to keep in mind...
Content is King
The whole reason you are making an infographic, is because you have some (hopefully) important facts and or data that you want to communicate to a broad audience. In order to do that, you start visualizing, and many times that requires illustration. But don't forget why you are illustrating! You want to make the content appealing to read and easier to understand. Once these two things are taken care of, any additional illustrating you want to do should only help further clarify the content.
The vast majority of infographics live on the web, so making your graphic look inciting enough to get the viewer to click and read it is important. Titles are the first (and sometimes only) part of the graphic people see, so taking that opportunity to add some illustrative flair, and really making the topic communicate, is wise. Try being conceptual with the title design by using illustration to hint at the overriding theme of the graphic.
Illustrating, Not Decorating the Data
Now that you have gained the viewers attention with your jaw-dropping illustration skills and witty execution on the title, you have to keep their attention. As much as you may think that stunning illustrations alone will make the viewer understand the content, that isn't always the case. Illustrations need to support and communicate the data. Here are some examples of how illustrations can be used to represent raw data:
This is a perfect example of a time when illustrations are almost mandatory for full comprehension. Often times, you want to explain a process, or show how something works, so visualizing those things can really aid in the viewer's understanding of the topic. It is important that you decide what level of detail is appropriate for your diagram. Look at who your audience is and what you are explaining. Sometimes the required style is something extremely realistic, while other times it can be loose and a bit abstract.
Maps, in general, are just fun to make. There can be great opportunities for some fun illustration work when the map doesn't need to be exactly cartographically correct. You can take that opportunity to really set up the mood of the environment of the location you are mapping. Icons can also become a large part of these types of visualizations.
If anyone tries to tell you that making icons is easy, punch them for me. In order to make a GOOD icon, it needs to be clear and legible. I see many icons that confuse more than help the viewer. Larger sized icons can incorporate a bit more detail, thus allowing room for some illustrative styling that, of course, is appropriate. Once you have a created an icon in a specific style, continue that styling on the rest of them. Consistency helps the icons be effective for the viewer's navigation through your material. And most importantly, make your own icons! It is frustrating to see how many designers use stock imagery and clip art. I found that when I try to reuse an icon that I created for another project, I still end up having to tweak it so it fits my new graphic.
Charts and Graphs
Now we are headed into dangerous territory. Charts and graphs get abused way too often in infographics, because designers think they need to change them into something they are not. I think Power Point and Excel are the culprits because of their options to make all of their charts 3D and confusing. With charts and graphs there are a lot rules to follow in order for them to display the data accurately. Yes, you do want to alter them enough so that they don't look like they are the default output from that software, but do not skew the data because you tried to make a bar chart out of puppies instead of a bar.
Color Choices Matter
Just because a color is obnoxiously bright, doesn't mean it belongs on an infographic. Find a color scheme that fits the content. Color can play such a huge role in illustration. At least for myself, I sometimes determine my color palette before I choose a style for a particular piece. I have noticed that minimal color palettes are better for infographics, because it helps unify all the data. Infographics are notorious for displaying a ton of tiny facts in a long, tall format. The minimal palette will help you create unity between all of your illustrations and data throughout the graphic, and also help you establish a hierarchy of information.
Don't Try too Hard
If you are struggling to find a way to incorporate illustration, you are probably working on a data visualization, not an infographic. In that case, just use beautiful design. Illustrations in a graphic can be subtle. Sometimes they are just good to have to give life to the topic and simply create an appropriate environment for the data visualizations to live in. Simple is often better, because again, it is all about the content. Don't feel like a failure if you don't get to fill your graphic with illustrations.
Appropriateness is everything. I know I have said this many times already, but whatever you illustrate has to be appropriate. Whether that be in you style, color choices, placement, complexity, or whatever. In an infographic, the whole purpose of adding illustrations is to clarify, and then beautify. Your personal illustration style may not be appropriate for the graphic you are working on, that is okay. Whatever you end up doing will be in your style. Now go out and make beautiful infographics that communicate!