On September 28, 2014, 100 protesters flooded Civic Square in Hong Kong in protest of the “one country, two systems” formula granting China power over Hong Kong’s electoral system.
The cause of their protest was Beijing’s ability to pre-screen electoral candidates, troubling the system’s classification as a true democracy. The number of people in the streets soon swelled to exceed 100,000, gaining a degree of traction not experienced in Hong Kong for decades. Law enforcers pushed back with batons, pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets. The Occupy Central movement and the student-led Scholarism campaign had coalesced and over the course of the weeks following the Civic Square occupation, they executed a series of protests at other locations.
But the following week, on October 3rd, anti-Occupy protesters in Hong Kong rose in response. Anti-Occupy protesters marched in support of police, opposing the discord unravelling in their streets. Anti-Occupy stories flooded Chinese media, adding kindling to the fire. One story in particular, featuring propagandic content, stood out. But this content wasn’t what you would expect–it wasn’t a video, it wasn’t an interview, and it wasn’t a photograph.
They circulated a series of timely infographics.
The series of infographics titled Hong Kong “Occupy Central” Ten Questions was broadcasted by Chinese state television. Embellished with cartoon images of protesters and using a professional color scheme of grey, blue and beige, the infographic broke down the cause of the movement, the government’s response, and criticized the movement for what the creator perceived to be the influence of Western colonialism on the protesters’ ideals of democracy.
The source of the infographic was traced back to a series of cartoons circulated on the web on October 2nd. The cartoons personified Beijing as a respectable businessman and father figure, with Hong Kong depicted as his son. 
This, coupled with the censorship of protest-related media on Chinese stations, bespoke a mainstream opinion that the protests were baffling and uncalled for. Occupy Central faced a strong backlash.
Content moves fast these days and the popularity of infographics have risen in response to that. People want information communicated to them quickly, visually and with impact. Infographics can do that–they’re easily shared across multiple platforms and easily viewed on any device. When it comes to disseminating information for the purpose of protest, infographics can be powerful tools.
A history of protest using infographics
There’s a reason that in our age of content saturation, images have become the favored form of content. Just look at how much more user engagement there is on Instagram than other social media sites like Twitter. Images communicate messages 60,000 times faster than text–their impact is instantaneous.Images communicate messages 60,000 times faster than text. Click To Tweet
This information is nothing new. The capacity for images (often coupled with minor text) to evoke strong and immediate emotional responses from people have made them the primary medium for propaganda, editorial cartoons and advertising throughout history.
“Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin. A popular editorial cartoon from 1754, depicting the American colonies as segments of a snake. It accompanied an editorial calling for the unity o the colonies. Via Wikipedia.
In their own niche, infographics date further back than you might expect. What makes infographics unique from other text-image content is their focus on graphically presenting data. There’s a purported scholarism behind infographics (at least in historical examples) that sets them apart from the more emotionally-driven posters and caricatures of propaganda. I probably don’t have to tell you, though, that infographics are not without motive, and are rarely neutral, even if they’re data-driven.
Early iterations of infographics pre-date the 1700s and taking on more modern forms in the 1800s. The 1850s can be considered the Golden Age of data visualization, with statisticians making innovations like stacked area charts, pictograms, 3D charts and flowcharts.
Take a look at these historical examples below. Using graphical visuals to present information, the creators have made no attempt to obscure the motives behind their visuals.
Historical Geography by John Smith in 1888, depicting the triumph of liberty in the Northern states over slavery in the Southern states following the Civil War. Via Co.Design.
Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East by Florence Nightingale. Presented to the British Parliament to elicit a response to the concerns for health and hygiene of troops during the Crimean War. Via Visually.
According to Lankow, Ritchie and Crooks’ Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling, infographics were popularized for editorial use in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with one of the most notable series appearing in Fortune magazine editorials.
Fortune 1946. Via Visualoop.
What makes infographics such effective vehicles for spreading information?
For one, they present information in a simplified and visually appealing way. When I say that infographics are visually appealing, I don’t just mean nice to look at–I also mean they use deliberate design and imagery to appeal to an audience.
Lankow, Ritchie and Crooks write in their book: “Appealing to someone not only aesthetically but also emotionally prompts a deeper connection with the information, which makes them more likely to remember it.”
Infographics can be read over in roughly a minute and passed on to friends with a click. They enable people to feel in the loop without requiring them to do extensive research. Infographics present large sets of information, condensed in quick, colorful one-page bursts.
That’s part of what enables infographics to go viral so easily. They are incredibly shareable, with or without an accompanying article to contextualize them.
For example, in response to President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Paris in November 2015, an infographic targeting human rights violations in Iran circulated the streets of Paris on the side of a truck. On the net, anti-Rouhani tags flooded Twitter and Facebook.
The infographic printed on the side of a truck. Via IranFreedom.org.
And when ISIS destroyed the arches of Palmyra in Syria in October 2015, the Palmyra branch of the Local Coordination Committees released an infographic showing the toll from all sides.
English translation of the original.
In both cases, the infographics not only present data, but also add fuel to fire for change surrounding both incidents.
But a word of caution to those using infographics to drive social change. Infographics condense and compress information about complex issues into one simplified graphic. When made poorly, they can skew and misrepresent information–and when circulated widely and without sufficient context, they can be sensationalize false information.
The potential for miscommunication
Because designing infographics involves putting information through a funnel to get to the very barest of text, there is a higher risk of information being distorted, skewed and misrepresented. This is one the major criticisms surrounding the surge in popularity of infographics in recent years. A 2011 article in the Atlantic even referred to the influx of infographics (particularly in marketing content) as a “plague” of “terrible, lying infographics, which have become endemic in the blogosphere.”
A very bold (and dramatic) claim. The writer was pointing to one inevitable effect, though: when a form of becomes popular, both the number of well-made and poorly-made content of that type increases. And they’re not wrong that infographics boasting erroneous information have been circulated.
Here’s an example: on January 2013, an infographic created by The Enliven Project went viral. The infographic highlighted the proportion of rapes reported versus perpetrators jailed in the USA. The infographic used a pictogram to illustrate the percentages.
Not long after going viral, however, the infographic began to receive criticism for its distortion of data to sensationalize the message. A Slate article, followed soon after by a Washington Post Fact Checker article, pointed to several errors in the infographic’s portrayal of the data.
In cases like this, the focus of the conversation surrounding the infographic was largely shifted to a discussion surrounding the accuracy of the infographic itself. This unfortunately detracted from the original point of the infographic, which was to encourage rape survivors to come forward and report their incidents, and to place more pressure on state authorities to prosecute perpetrators. Sarah Beaulieu, founder of The Enliven Project, conceded that there were some statistical errors in the graphic, but by that time, the graphic had already been circulated widely.
This is another common error made in infographics: if the information is not properly cited in the graphic itself, it’s easy for the graphic to be removed from its context and circulated separately, free of caveat or cross-reference. When you attempt to distil information about a complex and nuanced topic into one concise graphic, you will inevitably have to simplify and leave out information. Without pointing readers to a site where they can get a full report of the information, you creators risk giving the impression that the information on the infographic is all there is to it.
Does this mean that certain topics should not be represented in infographics? Or does the fact that an infographic manages to spark a wide conversation make it an effective piece of content?
A call to action
From my research, I’ve noticed that the elements that make for an effective nonprofit infographic are:
- An equal balance of informative text and evocative imagery,
- The use of (well made) pictograms and charts to illustrate data,
- Visible and accurate sources,
- And a strong call to action.
What every infographic created for the purpose of inciting social change should include is a strong call to action, with a very clear indicator of where viewers can go to get more information and to take action beyond simply sharing. Take, for example, this infographic about the Syrian conflict, which includes the url to World Vision Youth.
Or take this infographic Bill Gates posted on his blog to bring awareness to the deadly effects of Malaria:
Gates’ infographic went viral, spurring multiple articles in well known news publications. The infographic has a simple and clean design, with the sources listed at the bottom. Rather than being bogged down by lots of information, the infographic takes a very specific angle and uses minimal text and simplified images to drive the point home. It would only be made more effective by listing the actual reason mosquitoes are the deadliest animal (malaria) as with the assassin bug and dog.
Another example if the infographic created by Save the Children to draw attention to the ongoing war in Syria.
The effect of looking at this infographic is chilling–using a child’s face is a common tactic in nonprofit media because it works. Placing the staggering numbers of loss beside the face of an individual child causes readers to draw the connection between big numbers and individual victims. There is a very clear call to action at the bottom of the infographic: sign Save the Children’s petition or donate to their organization.
And following the death of a four year old boy in an escalator accident, an infographic circulated on WeChat advising Chinese citizens on proper escalator safety.
That’s why I would argue that despite the pitfalls of a poorly executed infographic, infographics are still a useful and effective conduit for messages of protest, for the simple reason that they compel people to look at them. Most people are much more likely to read an infographic than a full report. While this doesn’t mean they’re getting all the facts right away, at least they’re being introduced to the core ideas. If an infographic is made well, they will know where to go to find more information.
Of course, this doesn’t erase all of the poorly made infographics circling the web, just as the number of well-made informational videos and well-written articles don’t erase the poorly made and written ones. But the poorly made infographics also don’t make the well-made ones less effective.
As with any kind of content circulated on the web, readers should take into consideration:
- Who created the infographic. Are they a nonprofit? A privately owned company? A marketing agency.
- The intention of the infographic. To inform? To sell?
- The source of the information. Is it reliable?
- How might the information be skewed by the visualization (i.e. chart elements proportions, poor color choice, confusing design)?
On the other side, creators should always strive to follow best practices of infographic design and data visualization. If the infographic creation process seems daunting to you, try beginning with an infographic template. Venngage has a bunch of templates made specifically for nonprofits.
Read our guide for how to create infographics for nonprofit organizations.
Some books on data visualization you should definitely check out:
The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics: The Dos and Don’ts of Presenting Data, Facts, and Figures by Dona M. Wong
Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling by Jason Lankow, Josh Ritchie and Ross Crooks
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
 Contextualizing Occupy Central in Contemporary Hong Kong by Tai Wei Lim, Xiaojuan Ping