How Designers Turn Data Into Beautiful Infographics

Behind the scenes of information architects’ creative processes.

The best infographics are clear, easy to digest, and eye-catching. But the process of distilling data into a neat little chart, bar graph, or venn diagram usually requires pages and pages of messy preparatory sketches, which are rarely seen by the public.


In Infographic Designers’ Sketchbooks, Steven Heller and Rick Landers take readers behind the scenes of the creative processes of more than 50 information architects working today. This colorful collection of doodles, drawings, and digital mock-ups offers invaluable insight into how a pile of statistics can evolve into artful diagrams about anything from the shopping habits of American men to the adulteration of olive oil.

“I don’t think there are rules for designing infographics,” Heller, cochair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Art, tells Co.Design. Each designer’s process is unique: some, like Massimo Vignelli, sketch with a 3b Caran d’Ache; others sketch on Post-Its in pencil first and create flowcharts from there; still others, like Jennifer Daniel of Bloomberg Businessweek, find it easier to do all their rendering on a computer. Despite the varied approaches, there are some prerequisites for being a successful infographic designer. The job requires a rare confluence of so-called right-brained and left-brained skills: a talent for both visual arts (drawing, sketching, designing) and statistics (number crunching, data mining). “Whether with a pencil or on the computer, drawing is the operative activity [in infographic design],” Heller writes.

However talented a visual artist or graphic designer might be, she won’t be able to make an effective infographic without a deep understanding of data. “That’s the first skill you have to have–a definite and focused interest in the material you’re trying to produce as a visual,” Heller says. He notes that some artists feel infographics take the humanity out of their work, but the sketchbooks here beautifully blend art into science.

Nicholas Blechman, art director of the New York Times Book Review, for example, makes sure to infuse humor into his data-driven graphics, as seen in the cartoon sketches for “Extra Virgin Suicide,” about the adulteration of Italian olive oil. “The danger with infographics is that one can become a slave to the data. The challenge here was not to be too literal, and to dramatize the facts with humorous drawings.” He begins every piece with two sketches: “First to get the idea down, then a more refined sketch–a sketch of the sketch–to explore the design,” he says in the book. He’s loyal to pen on paper: “I love the immediacy and directness of drawing on paper. Something gets lost if I skip this phase and render directly onto the machine.” Many designers featured echo this sentiment.

Thomas Porostocky describes working in a slightly chaotic, stream-of-consciousness fashion, which might seem counterintuitive when designing information: he starts with doodles in a notebook, many of which don’t result in anything usable, then moves to Illustrator or InDesign. “I build an element or a rough overview of the piece, copy it over to another part of the page and modify it to see if I can make it better. Then I copy that new one over, and modify it again to see how that works. I build upon these elements over and over again, trying new approaches to see what works bets. There are lots of alterations and modifications,” he says in the book. His work is all vector-based. “Because I tend to start off right away in a digital format, my sketches often evolve into finals organically.”

Early sketches of ‘Motiv’: an application to make mechanical music more human© Russ Maschmeyer, 2011

Data visualization has been used as a visual shorthand in newspapers, magazines, and textbooks since the 19th century, if not earlier, Heller writes. But in the Internet age, infographics are more useful than ever. “Their popularity now has to do with the fact that we’re being bombarded by media and data, and there are so many different ways of addressing, analyzing, and serving that data,” Heller says. So often, this excessive information is conveyed sloppily, thoughtlessly, without enough attention to the reader’s experience. That’s what makes it so important to understand how deliberate infographic designers are about their process: many graphics look deceptively simple, but great visualizations aren’t whipped up in an instant; they’re planned impeccably, as these sketchbooks reveal. As Heller and Landers write in the book’s introduction, “Raw Data, Fresh Cooked,” there’s a bright side to the information overload:

More demand begets more designers, both schooled and untutored in the art of information presentation. A greater number of platforms and media outlets means it is incumbent on designers, who a decade ago would never have thought of themselves as ‘information architects,’ to become makers of some form of information visualization. The results are not just the rote pie and fever charts of yore, but are more nuanced while still being accessible.

Infographic Designers’ Sketchbooks is available from Princeton Architectural Press here for $36.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.