Like so many Generation X kids, I spent hours poring over National Geographic charts, exploded diagrams and data spreads. These fold-out treasures illuminated ancient Roman architecture, demystified the oceans and unlocked far chambers of the universe.
The contagious nature of data, shared through beautiful info-graphics was spellbinding—and delivered my first enduring experience of the power of these graphics.
There was a time when business data appeared to be generated by dry advisory firms, resided only in the dark corners of spreadsheets and annual reports, and belonged primarily to the CFO. Today, we find ourselves in an information age where data is more prolific than ever before. Unparalleled processing capacity and data mining tools have democratised this rich world of information and opened new layers of experience for consumers.
Transforming big data into communicable ideas really pays. So, why has it taken the business sector so long to wake to the innate power of visual data? And are they finally ready to harness this trend for commercial gain?
Today visual data permeates almost every aspect of our lives from movies (Minority Report), News (The Guardian), Games (Call of Duty), Dashboard Applications (Vodafone) and sport (WCC batting average compara-grams). The idea that complex concepts can be distilled down to a simple, engaging graphic has never been more popular.
Of course, the genre has deeper origins, and examples can be traced back as far as the mid-sixteenth century. In 1857, reformer, nurse and statistician, Florence Nightingale used a previously unseen graphic form (occasionally still referred to as a Nightingale Rose Diagram) to persuade Queen Victoria to improve support for military hospitals. For decades, the importance of this inspired piece of visual communication has underwritten the operational effectiveness of the UK armed services, saved countless lives in the field and, enshrined Nightingale’s own legacy as ‘the Lady of the Lamp’.
“Businesses recognize the
transformative power of data.”
But the value-chain doesn’t have to end at senior management level. These business insights, when distilled, designed and cascaded through internal staff engagement channels, can yield surprising returns. Compelling visual data can greatly enhance internal engagement with your brand through a deeper understanding of content.
Rewarding beautiful data
The Design industry has long recognized the distinct challenges facing the information designer in the information age. Advocates have emerged to promote excellence and beauty in the area of data visualization, info-graphics and information art. Their existence illustrates the growing recognition this communication-art has begun to enjoy in the business-design arena.
Information is Beautiful, is an organization that identifies and rewards excellence across six distinct categories of information design: Data Visualization, Info-graphics, Interactive Visualization, Motion Info-graphics, Tools and, Websites.
Each of these forms has its own particular role to play in breaking down your business challenges and, when married to the right media channels, their impact can be explosive.
Creating a usable visual content strategy
So, how do the pioneers in visual data, and their ‘fast-followers’ spin data stacks into corporate gold? We’ve identified the four key steps a business needs to take to harness the power of their data.
Step 1: Style over Substance
Choose your data sets wisely. Selecting the right data sets to analyse, and providing a clear point of view are essential management inputs, but brands are beginning to recognize data visualization as a resource that needs to managed.
Style should never be allowed to rise above substance. In other words, choosing what to communicate is still more important than how elegantly we express the data. After all, the fastest person down the wrong path still gets lost first.
Step 2: Achieve self-awareness
Find your own story, and express this powerfully with the aid of specialized design teams. It’s easy to communicate data that informs the category, but in the hands of a skilled design team, the graphic will illuminate your brand’s position within that category.
Spreadsheets of complex data that are distilled to a single end-point, then coupled to management insights and beautifully rendered—will deliver compelling graphics that are infinitely more viral in nature.
“A well-crafted info-graphic helps surface emergent trends, reveal insights, illuminate decision-points, and tell a differentiated story for your brand.”
Step 3: Create your own voice
By following brand-led graphic design styles, these visuals can reinforce your core identity. Subtle use of font, colour, visual language and even imagery, can embed a sense of identity without slapping a company logo on every piece.
One thing is certain, if your Brand toolkit is not in good health, you will miss out on a key opportunity, namely connecting your powerful insight back to your brand equity—a cardinal sin in this digitally connected world. A quick brand health check can quickly determine what, if any, remedial work needs to precede this programme.
Step 4: Connect your insights with their discrete audiences
Once created, these graphics are mobile enough to quickly permeate internal thinking, and compelling enough to positively influence the perception of your brand—both inside and outside the business.
To ensure the greatest impact, firms need to ‘match the media to message’. Choosing the right media channels to disseminate graphic information is essential, as each platform has distinct attributes that can amplify of suppress your insight.
These four principles clearly have implications for several areas of the business, from the initial strategy through content creation and into digital strategy.
With great power, comes great responsibility
Today’s business leaders are accustomed to handling large data volumes, but they also find themselves under increasing pressure to demonstrate high levels of transparency and accountability.
With rich data now permeating communications well beyond financial reporting, they are turning to data visualization and information graphics to help break down complex ideas and communicate these fluently to all stakeholders.
We know data alone cannot make decisions – it merely illuminates the decision area for skilled management teams – but it can inspire and provide actionable end-points from which the teams can model their insights.
Future leaders will grow more dependent on data visualization to break down complex challenges, not just to support decision-making, but also to help enact the necessary change that flows from them.