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Did you know that 100 years ago it was expected the average person would only read 100 books in their entire lifetime?

In 2007, following research, it was estimated that the average person is exposed to the equivalent of one newspaper (85 pages) of information every 5.5 minutes during the day (based on an average day of 16 hours and 174 papers a day).

That is a tidal wave of facts, figures, stories, data, images and mental junk. Interestingly, infographics (as a term) has seen explosive growth online in the last three years with a rise of more than 20 times in search volume for the keyword.

Could this growth be indicative of how we now want to consume our information and for it to be delivered quicker and easier to cut through the noise. Are infographics fast food for the brain in response to our info-weary brains?

Inspired by the release of the Cool infographics book by Randy Krum, this article considers how visual communication attributes to the fast and efficient delivery of information and data.

I have a copy of the book to give away as a prize (just in time for Christmas), so please see details on my Cool Infographics Book review here.

Source: The Telegraph

Information overload and the volume of data we are exposed to everyday

We are visually and mentally bombarded every day with information overload; exposed to such a degree on a daily basis that to sort and filter we have become immune to the majority, and as such, our attention span is reduced to seconds.

If I told you estimates state that there are 295 exabytes of information in the world, what does that mean? Do you even know what an exabyte is? (that's 295 with 18 zeros after it).

If I put this in context and tell you that this is an equivalent number to 315 times the amount of grains of sand in the world  then, possibly, you can grasp just how mind boggling this is.

Following research by Dr Martin Hilbert it was estimated that in 1986 we were exposed to 40 newspapers worth of information every day (if you factored an 85 page newspaper).

In 2007 we were exposed to 174 newspapers worth of information every day and I would expect that figure to have risen considerably taking into account the explosion of internet traffic growth experienced since 2005.

Content curation sites and news feeds have become a new way of constantly sifting through countless headlines by helping to manage the sheer tidal wave of new information thrown at us everyday.

I have very strict disciplines around how I manage that flow of information through feeds into readers. But, even so, I still struggle to keep up and am constantly overwhelmed with the tidal wave of news fed through every day.

Efficient code communication

Communication is the transfer of information: delivering a set of complicated instructions in a simplified manner that can potentially be time consuming to transfer all relevant components.

A more efficient way of communicating would be to refer to a prearranged code. CSS is a classic example of how it radically simplified the styling of HTML by short citation references of tags instead of styling code in long hand.

The military are also a great example of efficiency. Their use of codes within training and warfare situations allows instructions to be delivered at high-speed under pressure whilst avoiding any ambiguity.

Icons are a form of visual code, as are graphs and charts. We all know that a pie chart's segments represent a percentage amount of a total volume. We know this because we have been taught and understand the code so that every time we see a pie chart we can translate the code.

Standard icons such as a heart we know represents love and a letter outline represents an address for either email or overland mail. One of the best examples of icon codes are road signs - one of my favourite forms of design.

Pictograms that represent traffic laws such as hump-back bridge and the classic ducks crossing a road. We have to learn these symbols as part of our Highway Code test when we take a driving test and the symbols stay with us for life. 

Infographics rely on icons, charts and symbols to convey information as quickly as possible reducing the time to read and process.

Putting information into context through comparison

If I told you that there are approximately 2,267,233,742 global internet users what does that mean to you? In isolation it’s difficult to fully grasp and digest the significance of the figure.

If I tell you that there are approximately 7,009,000,000 people on the planet it offers a comparison to something you can relate to and therefore puts the data into a context by frame of reference.

So, if I show you a graph that visually represents that 32% of the world population are internet users, this activates the natural pattern recognition system of the brain and instantly delivers the message in context so you can fully grasp the enormity of the volume of internet users.

On a side note, interestingly this is where data is most susceptible to manipulation by the author/designer. A data set can be easily skewed to fit an agenda through comparison.

As a cultural example, when news programmes interview passers-by for comment on a current topic, the amount of sound bites they actually show is what has the greatest effect.

If eight out of ten people interviewed agree that privacy is an issue within social media, then the general opinion is that most people feel privacy is an issue.

But if the news channel only shows two sound bites and both of those believe privacy is not an issue, then the message becomes manipulated. That is why there is a responsibility by authors of information to be true to the data and message you are delivering.

Picture superiority effect

In scientific testing it has been proven that a message will have higher memory recall if it is presented visually as an image rather then verbally through words.

This attributes to the prevalence of imagery in advertising and graphic logos to represent companies and also to the importance of visual imagery in data presentation.

The Paivio Dual coding theory
"Picture stimuli have an advantage over word stimuli because they are dually encoded; they generate a verbal and image code, whereas word stimuli only generate a verbal code." (Allan Paivio, 1971, 1986)

The Nelson Semantic theory
"Pictures are perceptually more distinct from one another than are words, thus increasing their chance for retrieval."
(Nelson D.L., 1976)

So, where do infographics fit in to this?

Every day we learn to cut through this tidal wave by blanking visual repetition and only paying attention to that which we either have a subconscious programme to recognise such as our written name or that which breaks the usual pattern by being unfamiliar.

Imagine walking through a car park. You’re not going to pay attention to the rows of Fords, Vauxhalls and Renaults. They are everywhere. But imagine if you saw a rare car such as an AC Cobra or a classic Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, that would grab your attention.

I love the prolific use of infographics during times such as political elections - the charts in the newspaper and the large wall charts on the news channels to show the current voting results.

The quality of the 3D motion graphics we are presented with on news shows can be highly entertaining for their bad design but they are effective.

They do the job of simplifying potentially complex information much better than a newsreader can do by talking alone.

Source infographick.com

The London Underground Tube map is one of the ultimate examples of visual code using a language of colour and line to convey the most complex of information and has since become one of the most iconic and widely recognised pieces of design in the world.

Max Roberts tackled this design classic recently and bravely redesigned the maps in a circular arrangement, as he believes that “design flaws make them unnecessarily difficult to use”. Not sure I agree with his opinion but the radical approach is certainly startling and throws a whole new perspective on the usability of schematic transport maps.

Infographics cut through visual noise by delivering information in a quick to translate manner

  • Code communication with recognisable codes of graphs and icons.
  • Context to make data comparison quick to grasp.
  • Images which activate the picture superiority effect.

An infographic is a perfect vehicle to deliver complex data in an instantly consumable ‘fast food’ visual. We can glance at it, we can take it in, we can move on quickly. I think infographics will be here to stay for a long time and they will become more sophisticated with their presentation.

But essentially how can you better a basic Venn diagram or a bar chart for efficient and instant recognition of information?

Shelli Walsh

Published 12 November, 2013 by Shelli Walsh

Shelli Walsh is MD of ShellShock UK and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter or Google+, or connect via LinkedIn

3 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

James .

James ., Director, Digital Strategy & Optimisation at Personal

Really great article that helps explain why (especially if you are a visual person) we are drawn to infographics like moths to a flame. I personally find them great at providing a visual way to present data sets that can either be complicated or, dare I say it, a little dull in a more user-friendly way.

Your closing point though does open the question of how do you decide when to break with convention (bar chart / pie chart etc) and design something with a little more creativity to help make your point?

I suppose this lends itself to ensuring that you define the target audience for the content and design it from there.

almost 3 years ago

Shelli Walsh

Shelli Walsh, director at shellshock ltd

Hi James - thanks for your comments.

I would agree that the article has been left with a question regarding creativity in data visualisation. I am actually writing about creativity at the moment for a personal project.

The message I wanted to get across here is the visual power that basic graphs, charts and icons hold in efficiently delivering information as quickly as possible.

Within my work I am constantly pursuing ways to push creativity within content and information production. I am constantly watching trends and there has been some fantastic examples in the last 12 months of interactive and CSS3 infographic projects I have seen online.

But when all said and done I am a design purist (old school) and believe in the stunning elegance of simplicity; hence why I love road signs, tube maps and graphs!

almost 3 years ago

James .

James ., Director, Digital Strategy & Optimisation at Personal

Hi Shelli,

Thanks for the reply. From your article you certainly get the point across about the visual power graphs, charts and icons hold in delivery information effectively.

If you ever make the content you are writing about on creativity in data visualisation and make it public, please let me know (@modernapproach) as it would be of interest.

I spend quite a bit of time working on web and social strategy projects. I regularly am involved in data analysis to enable data driven approaches to website optimisation and social media strategy, hence the reason I look for who the content is being aimed at but as I said, really great post. Have even sent to it a couple of people to read and take some notes on too.


almost 3 years ago



I love infographics but the problem is they are only printable.
i wish publishers would make their infographic pdf capable.

almost 3 years ago

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