Intriguing study reveals the secrets of successful infographics

What makes an infographic successful? As designers, we want it to achieve a balance of two main things:

  • Did the reader get the message we wanted them to get?
  • Was the message memorable?

Doctoral student Michelle Borkin of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences worked with collaborators to collect, analyze and present 2,070 single-panel visualizations from a range of publications and websites.

In the “largest scale visualization study to date,” they asked, “What Makes a Visualization Memorable?”



Memorability is very important, but still just half the recipe.

The researches did not look at how well viewers understood the images, just how well they remembered them. Borkin’s next steps are to measure comprehension: that new study is already in progress.

This study represents the first step in their research, as they explore what makes an effective infographic, but it already raises questions about what designers have believed so far.


What they did

First, the team created a “visual taxonomy” of the images, identifying them by qualities like chart types, number of colors and presence of human-recognizable objects. They also classified attributes like the presence of non-essential decoration and “visual density” (a.k.a. clutter).


“Redesign Your Place” infographic designed for DMC Bologna, by Jacopo Ferretti

Then they chose 410 images that evenly represented the range of their sources (like news, science and the infographics site, as well as the range of qualities they’d identified. Using that group, they ran an online experiment (using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) in which participants watched a stream of images and clicked a button whenever they saw one they believed had been shown before.


What they learned

To the surprise of the researchers, bar graphs and charts did poorly. It turns out (news flash) they all kinda look the same. The most memorable images contained “human recognizable objects.” Think mundane stuff like photos or illustrations of bottles, animals and shoes, not to mention people.


“Who is Occupy Wall Street” infographic created for Fast Company, by Jess3

Other important points:

  1. Color made a huge difference: the more, the better.
  2. Images with more clutter were highly memorable. How much more memorable? A lot.
  3. Images with lots of circles and rounded corner graphics also ranked high.


More about clutter

Plenty of psychology lab studies show that simple and clear visualizations are easier to understand. However, researchers have also found that “chart junk” (a term coined by Edward Tufte, so important it gets its own Wikipedia entry) can improve retention because it forces us to work harder at understanding a graph, resulting in better comprehension.

Again, understanding what makes an infographic memorable is only the first step to creating more effective presentations. According to Borkin, “Making a visualization more memorable means making some part of the visualization ‘stick’ in the viewer’s mind.” She emphasizes that we also need to learn how to make sure that what sticks is our intended message, and not the eye candy.

  • Romanov Karmazov

    What an interesting find…

    You’d think the more simple designed info graphics would be more successful… The ones with less clutter.

    Then again. Trying to put myself in the shoes of the viewer (and set aside my designer status) I actually think I agree with the results! I am thinking back at all these infographics I looked at last week. The most memorable one was one that had tons of visual clutter and the design elements were revolving around a theme. In this case the theme was a plant. I remember a sky, a plant. a person, flowers. WOW.

    :) Excellent! I approve of said results.

    Thank you for the article! Hope you post part II after the research for the second study surfaces.


    • penina

      Thanks, and good idea, Romanov!

  • Andrew Hersh

    I. Love. Infographics.

    But I can’t make them.

    I’m not entirely sure why, but it seems to be mostly about the organization of the vast amount of information usually conveyed by an infographic. I can work with copy or advertising or images or basically anything else… but the fact that the information within an infographic normally doesn’t “flow” makes it hard for me to place it.

    Maybe I’m too attached to focal points and directing the eye? It would be just like my brain to have a problem with “designing” an infographic at all, as the impression I have of them is that they are to be impartial to the actual information they are conveying.

    Anyway. I liked this article and I think it applies to design (particularly for advertising) as a whole, as opposed to just infographics.

    • penina

      Good points, Andrew.
      I have faith, though, that you can find your way around this design challenge. Consider the idea of choosing what “visual metaphor” to start with, and creating a story around that. Sometimes it takes a few tries before it holds itself together in a unified way (images should relate in some way to the info).

    • Isadora Design

      I agree – infographics aren’t as simple to make as one would imagine. It’s difficult to find the right amounts of focal points and organize a proper hierarchy of information in a way that makes sense!

      Isadora Design – Handcrafted Web Design Company

  • pixellers

    Grate article.

  • Alexei Raiu

    About the junk – I have actually skipped the junky circles image, because it takes too much effort to understand. Other people’s brains must be wired very different, if they find that circular chart understandable or memorable.

  • dck

    Extremely interesting study. I have reduced complex manuals to one page to assist police understand key considerations and decisions in fast moving situations. Manuals usually contain some very useful and relevant information but thereafter are padded out with waffle. Also manuals are structured in chapters but events ,and the response, unfold sequentially. To be usefu,l in an operational environment, there must be some clutter. This, in my view, is not a problem because the mind focuses on one point at a time , understanding the context and how the decision fits into the sequence. For fun I have summarised books like T.E. Lawrence ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ to one page in a similar style. The summary quickly refreshes a book of some 600 pages which I read many years ago.
    i am very interested in being posted to any further public ally availability information on the subject of info graphics.