Timelines were technically some of the first infographics in history, telling the story of powerful empires and great people throughout time. And there is a reason that they have survived into this era.
They make complex information and stories easier to understand based solely on their linear structure. Timelines are an extremely flexible medium as well. They can be used in almost industry or situation you throw at them.
Want to show the history of your company? Bam, timeline. What about onboarding a new employee? Got it. Or showing a client your sales and design process? Easy, with timelines. They really can adapt to anything!
Although, lately I have seen that some timeline infographics have turned into oversized word documents. Instead, there is an abundance of filler text that does not tell a great story.
I think that problem stems from not having a plan or guide when starting out. Which leads to frustrated designers.
But fear not! In this article, I will teach you how to create a timeline plan AND put that plan into action. Yes, we will show you how to create one of our most popular timeline infographics, from scratch. Just like I had to do.
Let’s get into it!
1. Create A Plan
Before designing any new infographic, I like to start with a simple plan that will help guide me through the whole process. This is extremely useful when you are trying to create a timeline infographic, because of all of the parts that have to come together.
Here are the steps that I use to create that plan:
1. First I like to establish what the timeline will be used for in its final form. Or even what you are trying to achieve with the timeline format.
Ask the following:
- Who is this for? Where will this be published?
- Is this a story? A history lesson? Or a comparison?
- Will it be shared without any other text or content?
- Could it be used to support some sort of written content you have produced?
- Or are you going to print the timeline out and hang it up somewhere?
Simple questions like that in the planning stage will help determine what format and approach you take in the design stage. And knowing these from the start will make the whole process a lot easier.
As an example, take a look at this Google I/O timeline I helped create a few months ago:
In the Google IO timeline, we wanted to show the evolution of product announcements at the conference. And it was created for other techies like us, to be displayed in a blog post online. Boom, answered all of the questions!
2. Now it is time to make the plan a little more concrete. In this stage, you will need to determine how many points, dates or sections you will like to cover. I like to create a rough outline of all the things I would like to cover in a simple document.
Like this plan we used for the Google I/O timeline:
This MUST be completed before any design choices are made so that you know that the template you select will actually work for your topic.
There is a HUGE difference in creating a timeline with only eight points compared to another with 15 or more.
Use some of the answers from the previous section to help you figure this out. For example, the infographic below on the right can stand on its own without any written content, and it has over 90 individual points.
In contrast, there are only about 20 points in the timeline on the left, and the format is noticeably different. It would most likely be used to visualize or summarize some information from a larger article.
Planning things out like this that may seem trivial, but it will save you a ton of extra time later on. Trust me!
3. Next, using the answers from the sections above, you should figure out if you would like this timeline to be text or image-heavy.
Just be sure to pick one or the other; no one wants to read something that is longer than a novel.
For example, the timeline infographic below on the right uses mostly icons but the one on the left uses a ton of text.
After you figure out what the focal point on your timeline will be, it is time to set a text limit. This may sound a little daunting, but it can be as simple as saying each point can only have 3 lines of text or a maximum of 30 words.
With that limit in mind, you should use the questions from above to help summarize each point.
Returning to the Google I/O timeline, each point had a rather large paragraph of text in the original outline. To make sure the infographic was not ridiculously long, we had to cut it down to only ONE SENTENCE per point!
Even if you are creating a text heavy timeline this should be done to create a more streamlined timeline.
Cut the fat and only include the most interesting parts of your story or content. No one wants to read the life story of someone on each point, and if they did they wouldn’t be looking at an infographic timeline.
4. And finally, the last step in this planning stage is to decide if the timeline will be the ONLY focal point in the infographic. Or if there will be other sections that use more text, graphs and images.
For example, in the infographic below, the timeline is only half of the full infographic:
Instead of being the main point of the infographic, the timeline is used to support the points after it. In fact only about a half of the full infographic uses the timeline, the rest is used to talk about the future of marketing.
The designers combined a timeline infographic with a traditional infographic and made something much more useful to the reader.
I think this is a great approach if you would like this infographic to be able to stand alone without any other supporting content.
Remember, a timeline infographic does not have to consist only of a timeline!
2. Pick A Layout
After working through those planning steps, it is now time to select a layout! This is where you can start to make critical design choices based on your plan. And everything covered above should make this process a cake walk.
The first step in selecting a layout is to decide if you would like your infographic to be a horizontal or vertical timeline:
I recommend sticking to vertical timelines for both desktop and mobile use, as it is easier to read on both platforms. Horizontal should only be used for timelines you are planning to print off and display in the real world.
(Also if you are planning to print a timeline off be sure to make sure the resolution is very high. It may look great on a computer screen but terrible on the wall if it is has a low pixel count!)
Once you have picked an orientation, it is time to select what layout works best for your ideas and content.
Based on our research and experience there are only four simple to create templates:
This is by far the most popular layout for timeline infographics, across all niches. In this template, the timeline is centered on the infographic. With many arms and boxes branching off to hold content and icons!
Take this example (available on our templates page):
The simplicity of a centered timeline makes it extremely easy to follow. And most people will automatically recognize that it is a timeline before reading.
Here are a few examples to get those creative juices flowing:
I honestly recommend this layout for all timeline infographics because it is so flexible. And it is a great way to break down complex information.
Next, we have the other most popular timeline infographic layout: the aligned timeline. I call it that because instead of the timeline being centered, it is usually aligned to the left or to the right of the infographic. Then, the content and information are laid out beside the different points on the line. Like this:
This type of layout is great if you are creating a text-heavy timeline. Or one where you are comparing something across time, like the timeline of banned books above. Each of the books use multiple information points, but in this format they are not overwhelming.
Another great part of the aligned layout is that there is not much wasted or blank space compared to centered timelines. This is ideal if you are trying to create a timeline to be shared on social media because it will scale properly on a screen.
Here are some other examples of aligned timeline layouts:
I would recommend using the aligned timeline anytime you are trying to compare multiple factors or parts of a bigger picture. Or, like I stated above, if your infographic is very text heavy.
Simply put, the snake layout winds across the page and looks like a snake.
The best use of a snake layout is for timelines with lots of points and not a ton of text.
The infographics below are great examples of snake templates:
They both depict many points without very much text. In fact. most of the text is just titles, small phrases or dates. That’s why snake timelines work best for supporting other content or making a simple point.
Another great reason to use a snake timelines template is to condense a massive number of points into a small layout. The designers over at Funders & Founders do this well with their infographic timelines. Here is one of my favorites:
So remember that a snake template should be used when the points or dates do not require a mountain of text to explain them.
The sectional timeline template is my favorite, but it is not used as much as the others. This layout uses sections to separate each point on a timeline. And because of this there are usually only a handful of points per infographic.
A sectional timeline layout is ideal for timelines that do not have many points but do have explainer text.
Don’t you love how flexible the timeline layout is? I know I do!
A sectional timeline can also be used when you want to include large icons or images. So instead of the text being the focus, in a sectional timeline, the images are.
3. Add Timeline
After you have decided on a layout, it is time to actually create the actual timeline!
It’s timeline time.
I’m going to walk you through the process of how we created the Google I/O template from scratch, using Venngage.
For this type of timeline, which outlines the announcements from the yearly Google I/O conference, we used a centered timeline layout.
Like I mentioned above, centered timelines are the most popular because they’re so flexible. But they are especially useful for comparing dates or years, like in this case.
1. Start by selecting a line from the icon bar and drag it to the center of your blank page. This is your connecting line.
2. Then, select the line width from the dropdown menu. For this line, we used a 2px width.
3. Select whether you would like the line to be solid, dotted or dashed.
4. Next, add embellishments on the ends of the lines. We chose circles.
5. Select a color for the connecting line. We used a light gray (#C0C0C0).
6. And finally, make sure to lock the timeline in place using the Lock button. This simple step keeps you from accidentally moving the line while you add more elements.
Here is an extra tip to ensure make your timeline creation process easier: turn on the Magnet and Grid tools. They will make it easier to neatly align the objects on the page.
Wow, that was simple! Now that you have the bare bones of your timeline set up, we can fill in the details.
4. Place the Headers
After adding the backbone of the timeline, it is time to start adding the headers. The headers denote specific points on the timeline.
1. First, add a background for each point header using a rectangle icon.
2. Next, select a color for the header background If you need help picking colors, check this guide on selecting colors for your infographic. For this timeline, we decided to use green for the successful products and red for the discontinued products.
3. Lock the headers in place!
4. Once you have placed the point headers, add the dates.
5. Now that we have the headers on the timeline it is time to add the text!
5. Add the Text
1. Select the Text box from the side menu and place it on the page. You may have to adjust the placement of the headers accordingly.
2. Now you can add the headers. Adjust the size of the header background accordingly.
3. Next, using a bolded or strong font, add the dates.
4. Make sure all of the points and header are spaced apart evenly and aligned evenly with the connecting timeline. Be sure to leave enough negative space in between each point to let the text breathe; this will make the information easier to read.
5. Use the Group button to make the header shapes, header text and body text into one single element. This way, you can move them all as one.
Remember to use proper font hierarchy and pairing when you add the body and header text.
Here is another “tip” embed links directly in the timeline. Like this:
In this timeline, we linked to press releases, images, and product pages. It is a great way to source your information directly. But keep in mind that links will only be active if you embed the live infographic on your page, or if you download it as a PDF.
6. Add Design Embellishments
Now, you may be tempted to quit after adding all of their text, but there is one more step: adding embellishments.
Embellishments include any extra design elements you could add like icons, images or extra text.
Whatever extra flourishes you add to your timeline, they should be used to make it easier to read or understand, and they should never distract from the data.
To make the timeline easier read, we used the logos from each year of the conference to embellish the date headers. This gives the eye an easy path to follow, as the reader know that a new logo means a new year:
Another kind of embellishment that can help bring points to the forefront are icons. We used the logos of each of the Google products. The icons helped establish a clear break between the points and also helped the reader recognize the product if they weren’t familiar with the name:
The last embellishment we used was also the most subtle, and you might have missed if you just skimmed the timeline quickly. Did you catch it? Maybe if I give you a chance to look at the title:
That’s right, we used the description of the timeline to give the reader some more information about each of the Google products without spelling them out. This was all done adding a smaller rectangle to each product header, to denote the different types of products:
Simple things like that will help you convey a lot of information in a timeline without having to use more text. Think of all the extra space we would have had to use if we did not use icon and color embellishments? Plus it would be a confusing mess of text that reads more like a term paper.
And what did I say above about turning timelines into a glorified word document? That’s right: avoid it at all costs!
Instead, use a timeline infographic to tell a story that your readers will enjoy and want to share with their friends.