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Idea: Stop Using Infographics; Start Using Explanation Graphics

Holmes' early, iconic style was influenced by editorial cartoons.

Holmes’ early, iconic style was influenced by editorial cartoons.

In 1978, a young designer from the United Kingdom named Nigel Holmes joined the chart and maps department of Time magazine. For the next 16 years, his work there helped define and popularize the types of storytelling illustrations everyone now calls “infographics.”

Well, not everyone. Nigel Holmes doesn’t call his work infographics. He calls them explanation graphics.

Here’s the difference: If you Google the term “marketing with infographics,” you will discover hundreds of articles and posts informing you how infographics are good for getting your content re-tweeted, shared, embedded or blogged.

Such conventional wisdom has shifted the goal of the infographic away from its storytelling role toward a social sharing goal. In most of those posts, you’ll read about how to make infographics more shareable. The posts will focus on the use of certain colors, fonts and types of illustrations, all meant to convey to the potential re-tweeter that, “Hey! Please be aware that this is an infographic, so share it!”

Holmes has inspired four decades of designers to not only stop thinking of illustrations as merely decorative support for stories, but also to view them as a means for telling those stories.

Holmes has inspired four decades of designers to not only stop thinking of illustrations as merely decorative support for stories, but also to view them as a means for telling those stories.

Explanatory graphics, on the other hand, seek to discover and tell the audience a story that is hidden in the data. While an infographic can both tell a story and be shareable, the skills necessary to create such a graphic are far deeper than the skills it takes to use one of the hundreds of fill-in-the blank infographic templates that have flooded the market.

Ironically, when Holmes was creating some of his most iconic graphics, he drew the ire of critics who said his style was intended to bring more attention to itself than to support the article it was accompanying. Such criticism grew more intense when Holmes’ work started appearing regularly on the cover of Time.

Holmes, still active at 72, has influenced a couple of generations of illustrators who are passionate about stretching design and technology to discover and tell, in a visual form, the stories found in complex data. The greatest of these have moved beyond the cartoon style and approach identified with Holmes, but they hold tight to his focus on the way art and design can provide powerful tools for helping an audience understand the stories hidden within data and statistics.

NYTimes.com's "explanatory graphic" comparing the length of the Olympics' downhill ski course to Central Park.

NYTimes.com’s “explanatory graphic” comparing the length of the Olympics’ downhill ski course to Central Park.

For example, some of the most consistently inspired uses of graphic design, illustration and data visualization techniques come from the multimedia developers and artists at NYTimes.com. Check out the portfolio of work they did during 2014.

Particularly notice the term they use for their work—Explanatory Graphics—which signals how they view their role to the audience of NYTimes.com.

Bottom Line for Marketers: In the past, the term infographics referred to a style of visual storytelling that sought to make the complex simple and the confusing comprehensible. Today, infographics is a term applied to a style of illustration that often displays bullet points of simple and familiar facts using quickly clichéd clip art and fat-lettered fonts. A better approach—that both serves customers and is shareable—is to use graphics that explain, interpret, teach and provide customers with a deeper understanding of something important to them.

Photos: NigelHolmes.com, NYTimes.com

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