Infographics aren’t magic.

A good infographic is an accurate, consumable, attractive visual overview of a complex topic—they are not magical solutions to impossible communication challenges. Much more than the sum of its parts (pictures, data, words, and design), a good infographic simply tells a relevant story to the audience that needs it.

And those are the two things that some creators and clients forget about: relevance and audience. Instead, it can be all too easy to focus on our pretty pictures, sexy stats, and witty words. We try to cram as much in as possible, defeating the purpose of the infographic as overview. Or you see the opposite problem: a scarcity of meaningful visuals sprinkled around a simplistic layout of cherry-picked, out-of-context data.

We work hard to ensure our infographics and other deliverables tell stories at the right level—not too sparse, not too dense. And it’s always tricky. Even in our own passion projects, we sometimes become so enamored of our precious content that we try to force in more than can fit. Luckily for us, a second set of eyes usually helps us get back on track. But this is especially true with clients who are paying a premium and want to get, as the saying goes, the most “bang for their buck”. It’s completely understandable that most people try to fill their infographic with as many details as possible. Understandable, but futile.

But when we’re truly working with our audience in mind we must constantly ask ourselves—and them, when appropriate—”what’s truly relevant here?” “What must we tell them now, so they’ll be inclined to act or dig deeper later?” It’s a tricky balancing act, because the more content we include the more effort that’s required to consume it—and the more likely your message won’t be received because of this. You can’t conjure magic through sheer mass. It’s self-defeating.

Because they’re not magic, consuming an infographic requires effort no matter what. Sometimes design and wayfinding help; sometimes there’s more a more serendipitous kind of exploration involved. Sure, using an infographic is a lot less work than reading a book cover to cover, studying a white paper front to back, watching an entire documentary film, or sitting through a complete lecture… but they do require effort on the reader’s part. Our job and the entire point of an infographic is to quickly summarize a longer story in an engaging way. Infographics are not meant to include every detail or be relevant to every audience, and when you try to do that you kill any magic that could have been.

Some simple infographics do provide a nearly instantaneous and mostly complete understanding of a topic. But an explosion diagram showing the components of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is inherently, intrinsically, insanely different from a future state infographic explaining the new vision or updated business strategy of a Fortune 100 company. To work, neither should try to include every detail of either process.

My favorite example of this inclination to go overboard is captured in a purposely facetious Carl Sagan quote: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Clearly, you can bake pies with less effort than that. And we can tell good stories without including an entire universe of information as well. The real challenge of visual storytelling comes during the early stages of the infographic (or video, interactive tool, publication, etc.) when we work to understand the audience and the goal, discover the content, and decide what’s relevant and how it should be presented. That groundwork doesn’t have the glitz and sparkle of the final design and illustration phases, but you need a lot of tricks up your sleeve to pull it off well.

So, no, infographics aren’t magic. Instead, tightly-curated, well-designed, narrative-driven visual stories are how we better connect with our audience. That’s what makes the magic possible, whether the goal is clear and effective strategy activation or making the world’s best PBJ.

Image: illustration by W. Scott Matthews / Tremendousness using a photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash.