For almost every design project we work on these days, were asked to add an infographic or a set of icons. Its become a staple of the brief – whether its a brand development, a campaign, an impact report or a strategy document. At the end of every conversation is the comment, It would be great to be able to have that as an infographic too.

We build infographics into every branding and identity development project, and they form an essential chapter of brand guidelines and brand personality application.

A sign of the times

When I was creating brand guidelines back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, infographics didn’t feature at all. Businesses communicated almost everything in print, so the focus was on the tactile elements of a brand – selecting paper, board and finishes for letterheads, choosing stationery items and business cards, and deciding on materials and weights.

Today, these things are often omitted in brand guidelines. Business communication – now most often digital – has moved to a preference for the bite-sized and the visual: conveying the largest amount of information in the tiniest pictorial summary.

What’s behind the rise of infographics?

The strong emphasis on distilling information into icons and infographics that we see today is partly a response to:

  • our shorter attention spans and limited focus, which make it harder for us to take in information
  • the need to cut through the overwhelming volume of content being pumped out through multiple channels – mainly social media, with a bite-sized format that fuels pictorial summaries
  • a communication trend that has become so embedded that it’s also becoming an expected requirement.

Diminishing attention spans

I’ve recently finished reading Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari. It’s a fascinating book that explores why, as a society, our ability to focus has been reduced to the point that ‘an average office worker now focuses on any one task for just 3 minutes’. We’re frequently distracted and having to shift the focus of our attention, so everything we produce has to fit into that limited window of concentration.

Information overwhelm and the need for speed

While our attention spans may be shorter, we also require (and produce) information at an alarming rate. The rising demand for icons, infographics and other pictorial distillations of information reflects the shift towards:

  • the need for speed – we want to broadcast and receive information at shorter and shorter intervals
  • the reductive nature of communication – driven mainly by social media, the distraction of notifications, and the infinite scroll
  • a tendency to scan and skim – as Johann Hari explains, when reading on screen ‘we run our eyes rapidly over the information to extract what we need.’

Why use infographics and icons?

Icons and infographics can be incredibly useful for:

  • accessibility
  • people who find it easier to process information visually – for example, those with low levels of literacy
  • multicultural audiences
  • refugee and migrant communities.

Icons and infographics can make complex messaging and complex data easier for everyone to understand and process. They can also make dry, ‘boring’ information more engaging.

There’s a skill in creating engaging infographics that distil things down into recognisable and successful communication. There’s no better showcase of how appealing and transformative this can be than the book Information is Beautiful by David McCandless.

But should we be reducing everything to an icon?

A pictorial representation isn’t always the most effective or appropriate option. For example:

  • icons can distil information, but they can also dilute and diminish it
  • icons can be cold and lack empathy
  • icons have different meanings in different cultures – for instance, the frequently used ‘thumbs-up’ emoji may be a sign of approval in Western culture, but in the Middle East it’s equivalent to giving someone the middle finger.

Therefore, careful consideration is needed about whether a pictorial representation is the right format.

What should I consider?

It’s important to make sure there is a clear communication purpose for the reduction. When there’s a strong argument for distilling and reducing a piece of information, infographics and icons can be incredibly powerful.

If they are not overused, and as long as they aren’t created for every level of communication and context, icons and infographics are a fantastic way to engage audiences with more complex information. They can also impart information quickly as an accompaniment or a highlight.

Here are some key questions when considering whether using an icon or infographic is appropriate:

  • Who is your audience? Would a simple icon be more engaging or accessible for them?
  • Why are you distilling the information?
  • What format is most appropriate? Not all infographics distil – some can transform it and open up more visually engaging aspects of your message.
  • Does it fit your brand?

Consistency is key

As part of a brand and asset library, a set of icons gives you a robust layer of communication. They contribute to a consistent brand execution and application, reinforcing trust and professionalism. A chapter on the style used for statistics, icons and infographics is a staple of any brand guidelines, and these helpful tools are here to stay.

If you’re thinking of exploring whether you need a set of icons, infographics or other ways of distilling your information in an engaging way for your audiences, let’s have a chat. We can give you advice about how to incorporate them in an effective and purpose-led way.