When deciding whether I wanted to write a thesis or produce an alternative outcome, I was drawn to the idea of an alternative outcome because I wanted my work to be accessible to a wide range of people. Since my research is applicable to basically anyone who lives in a community, I wanted to create something that could reach far and wide. The first idea I had was to write a how-to manual about building virtual social capital on the neighborhood scale. I found a great Social Capital Building Toolkit from the Harvard Kennedy School that I was going to use as an exemplar to inform my own manual. Once I began writing, however, it didn’t quite feel right. It was too wordy, and the audience was some kind of pre-existing group in the neighborhood such as Portland’s Neighborhood Emergency Teams (also known as CERT elsewhere), who would use it to build community around their existing causes. Although I do believe that leveraging existing organizations is an important tool in community development, there were two things that didn’t feel quite right for this outcome: 1) My research focuses on individuals using an existing online platform, and one of the great things about this method is its accessibility — people could access it whenever and wherever they wanted. Since it’s individuals creating content, they can post about anything, not just a specific topic that a local organization might pertain to. 2) After meeting with one of the leaders of a neighborhood NET team, I got the sense that their team was not interested in utilizing Nextdoor as a tool to increase the community involvement in their cause.
I went back to the drawing board with this question in mind: what is the best way to communicate with individuals online? After reflecting on my own information consumption habits, I decided it needed to be something very concise and visually appealing for me to even consider stop scrolling. Based off of the rapidness of information sharing on Snapchat, the increasing use of images and videos on Facebook, and the success of Instagram, I decided it needed to be quick and easy to access and absorb, and having a visual component could help increase viewership. With that, combined with my love of the graphic design website Canva, I set out to make a series of infographics. I decided to make three, first addressing why people should care, then what they should do, and finally how to do it. I envisioned them being complementary to each other, but I also designed them to stand alone if necessary. I envisioned them being shared on Nextdoor or Facebook, so I tried to make them a size that would be compatible with those formats — often infographics are very long and skinny which works on a blog format when using a desktop or laptop, but doesn’t work very well when clicking on an image on a smartphone.
Although I, like many, enjoy looking at infographics, I had no experience making them. I took some time to research infographic designs, and began to formulate an idea of what I saw as a successful or unsuccessful infographic. I read the informative blog post titled “12 Infographic Tips That You Wish You Knew Years Ago” and kept those tips in mind when creating my infographics. I also looked at the blog post “The 100 Best Infographics” for design inspiration. These posts reaffirmed my desire to create three separate infographics with very specific topics, which became: Cascadia (Why should I care? Because there will be an earthquake), Social Capital (What should I do? Meet my neighbors), and Netiquette (How do I do it? Using these tips on how to interact online).
My process was driven by personal experience and research, but the scholarship on infographic design supports the process and outcome I produced. According to the categories presented in the book Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling (Lankow, et al. 2012), I created an editorial infographic, which focuses more on a narrative than on presenting data. Editorial infographics often incorporate more decorative elements, which can often aid in the retention of information. Lankow et al. (2012) describe the value of utilizing infographics over text-based communication:
While this statement is subjective— and risks taking a largely qualitative approach— it’s safe to say that to most people, a beautifully designed infographic is more visually enticing than a 250– 500 word article, at least at first glance. This has less to do with the differences in efficacy of a text-only based medium visà-vis infographic content, and rather more with the amount of content individuals consume each day. In the era of data deluge, we believe that infographics have a better chance of standing out among the mix of various other types of media people come across on a given day. (126)
The authors have a few chapters detailing the best practices of infographic design, which line up closely with the blog post I referred to earlier. As an overarching goal, they also refer to Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius’ three standards to which all structures should adhere: utility, soundness, and beauty. To sum it up, I created a table.
Utility,“Research or insights is a priority. Narrative infographics guide the viewers through a specific set of information that tells a predetermined story. This approach is best used when there is a need to leave readers with a specific message to take away\, and should focus on audience appeal and information retention.” (200)
Soundness,“Good infographics also communicate something meaningful. Communicating a message worth telling provides readers with something of value. While infographics can be a powerful vehicle of communication\, they are sometimes produced arbitrarily or when a cohesive and interesting story isn’t present. If the information itself is incomplete\, untrustworthy\, or uninteresting\, attempting to create a good infographic with it is more than a fool’s errand; it’s impossible.” (200)
Beauty,“While the information is of the utmost importance when it comes to soundness\, what is done with the information— essentially\, how it is designed— is also important. With this in mind\, there are two things to consider: format and design quality. If an inappropriate format is used\, the outcome will be inferior. Similarly\, if the design misrepresents or skews the information deliberately or due to user error\, or if the design is inappropriate given the subject matter\, it cannot be considered high quality\, no matter how aesthetically appealing it appears at first glance.” (201)
I created my infographics with the aim of addressing these three standards. With three separate infographics, I tried to split up the information into three digestible chunks, each with a specific message to take away while still relating to each other in the larger disaster narrative. I included sources, and tried to visualize as much of the information as possible so people would retain it more easily. I tried to have function determine form, and had the information I wanted to communicate in mind before designing each layout. Ultimately, each infographic was a piece of my scholarly essay: why does it matter, what do I do, and how do I do it. It was a really fun process to design these, and I hope the information shines through.
Lankow, Jason., Ritchie, Josh, and Crooks, Ross. 2012. Infographics The Power of Visual Storytelling. New York: Wiley.