Communication Currents

Infographics as Practical Tools and “Visual Legacies”

April 1, 2015
Visual Communication

Infographics, short for “information graphics,” are a popular and effective means of communicating complex ideas and information in a visual format. Not only are infographics everywhere, but our brains also crave them. That is because they are accessible, engaging, and clearly and quickly understood. Today’s infographics are characterized by illustrations, such as icons, graphs, figures, and text that vary in color, size, and font. They are typically presented in long, vertical formats. Infographics have been used for thousands of years (think maps and traffic signs), though their popularity has exploded in today’s world, driven by a need to disseminate information to large audiences in easily consumed ways, and enabled by increased public access to (free) tools to create them, as well as social media’s emphasis on “shareability.”

I created the infographics assignment published in Communication Teacher after a series of observations. First, I often hear colleagues in various industries lament that reports, such as sales summaries, business trends, and client needs analyses, are often done poorly: they are too long; they are filled with technical language; and they are, frankly, boring. I wondered, how could we teach students, as future professionals, to create better ways of sharing information with others? Second, I wanted to freshen my approach to the research report-style assignments for my advanced undergraduate courses. I had long privileged a written way of communicating when really, what was central to my purposes was that students could read, interpret, and translate research for an audience. Third, our college recently adopted Seelio, an online portfolio platform that allows students to create profiles where they can share their work and connect to others. It also serves as an online résumé. This challenged me to consider how students could create something that was appropriate for the medium and engaging for their audiences (peers and future employers, primarily).

Ultimately, I drafted an assignment that was primarily visual, yet firmly grounded in the process of research exploration and synthesis. I wanted students to see infographics as practical and powerful tools that have the potential to be “visual legacies.” In short, I hoped they would create something they would be proud to share.

For the assignment, I had the students create a four-panel infographic about a topic of their choice. Developed within an advanced interpersonal course, the infographics were largely about romantic relationship issues. In addition to the infographic on this page, students’ topics included Social Media and Jealousy, Music and Courtship, and Weddings. Each panel, or portion of the infographic, is supposed to contain a distinct set of findings from the research. At the same time, the panels should cohere to tell a compelling, comprehensive, and creative story. I also required that students cite their references at the bottom of the infographic and submit all research materials with the information they used for the infographic highlighted. This allowed me to evaluate the quality of the information they selected. They also submitted a document approximately two pages in length explaining how they developed their infographic. The purpose of this part of the assignment was for students to explicitly discuss and own the choices they made within the infographic.

While the details of the assignment, including the timeline and grading rubric, can be found within the publication, I wanted to take this space also to highlight some of the challenges and successes we experienced as a class so that others know what to expect when creating an infographic or guiding others through the process. First, as many infographic sources will tell you, infographics are simple in their elegance, but they are anything but easy to execute. Generally, students in my class were pleased with their final infographics; however, when I first presented the project to the class, several students expressed uncertainty about their ability to create a visual. In fact, a student who was “super proud” of her final product was the one to raise the first concern: “I’m not an art major.” Another student told me privately, “I know how to write a research paper. I know how to find the research and I know how long it will take me to write the paper. I don’t know how this [project] will work.”

Despite these challenges, the infographics were fun to create and continue to benefit students. I encouraged all of my students to share their infographics on social media and to include their infographics in future application materials. Allison, who created an infographic about the importance of kissing in relationships, told me she recently submitted her infographic in an application for an advertising/marketing internship. She shared how easy it was to include in her materials, and, more important, how confident she felt that a simple product said so much about her skills and abilities.

Additionally, this assignment is extremely versatile for instructors. Extend the project by adding panels. Combine the infographic with other elements, such as annotated bibliographies and literature reviews. Have students present the infographic in different formats, including oral presentations and social media sharing (e.g., college website, school Facebook page). Adapt the project for any subject course, or in a research course, have students collect, analyze, and visualize their own data. Use infographics in your own presentations, lectures, and training sessions. There are endless possibilities in picturing data.

As I state in the article, this infographic project, “pushes us as communication teachers to consider alternative, yet complementary methods for our students to create legacies, to engage research in ways that further develop the critical and necessary skills to be consumers, curators, and creators of information.” In sum, I encourage you to think about how infographics can be both a practical tool and a visual legacy for your own and your students’ work.

About the author (s)

Charee M. Thompson

Ohio University

Assistant Professor