Storytelling with Data Visualization

I had the pleasure of attending a Guardian Masterclass in London — one specifically about Data Visualization for journalists, designers and marketers. Presented by both an editorial director and an art director, it covered both the story and the graphic design aspects, and the core theme of the course addressed a simple question – does your data tell a story and can you visualize it?


Infographics have become a popular and powerful marketing tool in recent years, but they are by no means a new invention. There are many examples of infographics used in cartography, science and journalism, often dating back to the 19th century.
This example was created by undergraduate students of W.E.B. Du Bois made for an exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
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Here’s a brilliantly simple but powerful war time poster that dates back to 1917.
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This next diagram dates back to the 1840s, but looks surprisingly current. It depicts the spread of Cholera in relation to the temperature in London. A theory that was later proved to be incorrect, but nonetheless, the study paved the way for the first national system for collecting statistics and a more data-driven approach to public health.
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The Titanic spawned many visualizations – often to help people put the scale of the ship into context. One of my favorites is this simple 1912 rendition of the ship hitting the iceberg in relation to a train of the same era.
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Some say that the London tube map is one of the most successful infographics of all time. Designed by Harry Beck in 1933, he realized that geographical accuracy was less important to passengers who simply needed to plan a journey as easily as possible.Storytelling with Data Visualization 5

Matching stories to data

Before artwork is considered, it’s important to analyze your data set and agree on what kind of infographic is most suitable. Should it be one main visual or a mixture of many? This can also depend on the final medium the graphic is presented in (i.e. Web only, print, TV, etc.).

Infographics can be categorized into these five areas:

  1. Illustrative: Good for simple visuals and quick facts. For example this well illustrated graphic explaining land use for an agricultural company.Storytelling with Data Visualization 6
  2. Proportional: Visuals that are relatable on a human level. For example, this graphic from the Slow Journalism magazine depicts the area of public parks in proportion to some city centres.Storytelling with Data Visualization 7
  3. Timeline: Visualizing the history of something. This example explores the history of video game consoles over time.dataviz_video-game-timeline
  4. Map: Applying data to maps. This example is an ambitious visual of chain pizza restaurants in the USAStorytelling with Data Visualization 8.
  5. List: Storytelling with Data Visualization 9Using type effectively in lists or tables. Another example from the Slow Journalism magazine demonstrates how type was used to show the success of films in 2014.

Tips on visualizing data

  • Sketch out your idea on paper before digital artworking begins, you could save yourself/a co-worker a heap of time!
  • Work out what your “killer fact” is — what is the main purpose of the infographic?
  • Validate your data and make sure your sources are credible
  • Optimize the scope of your data and keep it interesting — not too much and not too little
  • Present as beautifully as possible — design is key!

Putting data into context

The best infographics, which are trying to convey a message, assist the viewer by putting that data into some sort of relatable context. We’ve all the heard the expressions people use when trying to put something to a scale: “it’s about the size of 3 football pitches”… “it’s about as tall as the Eiffel Tower” etc.
Here’s a great example a visual that depicts a blue whale:
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On the left, note the size comparison of a blue whale’s heart to a human being.

What if there is no story in my data?

I’ve been creating infographics here at Kurtosys for a few years now. I’d be the first to admit that they don’t all have a story to tell. I think there lays the difference between infographics for journalism and infographics for marketing. For many financial services firms and B2B’s, it’s about displaying data in a fresh, easy-to-read format that accompanies a broader message.

One of our most successful infographics was a visualization of 10 Years of Fund Flows, which was based on a spreadsheet of data from Deutsche Bank. We thought that a heatmap of bubbles to represent the data would really bring it to life and also highlight the recession/crash of 2008.Storytelling with Data Visualization 11

The future of infographics

Infographics are evolving. There are new flavors of visuals that are emerging such as 3D infographics that use real photography.
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Even physically printed infographics made with 3D printers can create some amazing results.

What about interactive infographics? Google did a terrific job on this fancy scrolling website which demonstrates how Google works. And check out this horizontal scrolling site about the future of car sharing. These are highly customized sites that represent literally hundreds of hours of work!

Services such as can make life easier for digital marketers as they let you plug in data feeds and output whizzy interactive charts and maps. I think in 2015 we will see more interactive infographics on the web — and hopefully more resources to make them easier to create.

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