Your data is trying to tell a story. Here is how you can help enchanting tales unfold.
How many times have you heard the boss say, “Turn those sales trend numbers into a graph” or “Give me those market projections as a chart”? There is an underlying reason for the demand. The world wants explanation before data. Visuals tell a story, they provide insight, they are information-rich. That’s one reason why visualizing data is becoming increasingly important in business.
Swedish professor Hans Rosling, one of Time magazine’s The World’s 100 Most Influential People: 2012, has a fascinating presentation of health trends in a 2010 film made by BBC Four. Rosling teaches global health at Karolinska Institutet. In the film, The Joy of Stats (available on YouTube), he presents 200 years of health data from across 200 countries in 4 minutes. He uses 120,000 numbers plotting life expectancy since 1810. It is entirely reasonable to assume that most of us would be challenged when it comes to wrapping our minds around 120,000 data points in 4 minutes—and make sense of the data. The way Rosling presents the numbers is staggering—for sure, he is a showman and the technology behind the presentation is just on the other side of Star Trek—but the story that he prises out of the numbers is even more fascinating. Incidentally, Rosling’s Trendalyzer data viewer was acquired by Google some years ago and it has since evolved into a public data explorer.
Similarly, there is data journalist David McCandless (www.davidmccandless.com). Like photojournalism, data journalism is its lesser-known brother; but it is a practice quickly rising to prominence in a world that has a ceaseless data exhaust. McCandless has turned his observations into a book, Information is Beautiful, that is strongly recommended for anyone wanting to become a commanding boardroom storyteller. The way data is presented on topics such as the cost of the worldwide financial crisis, books everyone should read, who really runs the world, the future of the future and other such impossible-to-imagine data points tells us that those simple graphs and charts we generate in a spreadsheet just won’t cut it anymore.
And let’s admit it, the kind of infographics we see today on the Web and in publications are seriously cool. Very few of them use bland old-school graphs and charts to narrate a story or to extract meaning from dense mountains of numbers. Most of them use modern storytelling methods rich in relational graphics, smart images, intelligent typography that doesn’t just help label the information but adds to the story, colours that speak more than words, call outs, flags, bubbles and stuff that can keep you immersed in the story for several minutes, even hours. Now that is what you want in your presentations, in your documents, brochures and reports. You want people to sit up and listen to your story, remember it and go back with images that cannot be easily erased.
There are innumerable sites on the Web that offer insights into infographics in addition to helping you create them. Here are our top 4 to get you going:
u www.coolinfographics.com: This is a blog by Randy Krum, the president of a visual thinking and marketing agency. The blog helps understand what goes into infographics and how to leverage them. In 30 minutes of reading the blog you could build a hunger for infographics that won’t be easy to feed.
u www.visual.ly: You can crowdsource the infographics and data visualization from your data at Visually. Infographics typically cost between $1,000 (around Rs.64,000) and $4,000. This may appear steep, but that’s the price you pay to tell a story in a single poster, slide or image. Once you have built an appetite for infographics, Visually could be your next stop.
u www.piktochart.com: Don’t have a mega-budget to commission that blockbuster infographic? You could try Piktochart that offers seven free chart themes that let you customize fonts, colours, images and create seductive stories from your data. Once you are ready to upgrade, the paid service at Piktochart has many more options that cost $29 a month or $169 a year.
u www.infogr.am: Just want to try your hand at infographics without spending a cent? You could do it with Infogram, a free Web-based tool with a fairly good range of themes. The site lets you create infographics using real data and your own images and videos.
Data and data visualization are hot right now. And it is getting easier to spruce up your data so that your audience doesn’t yawn through your presentation. There are many more tools on the Web than listed here. Seek them out. In most cases, it won’t take you more than an hour or so to learn how to put magic into your numbers.
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies.