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What are the best tools for producing infographics - attractive displays that combine graphs, diagrams and text to convey a lot of information succinctly. I'm interested in both web-viewable content and posters for printing.

Specifically, I'm asking:

  • What combinations of tools are used (eg, one tool for making graphs, another for assembling graphs and text into the final infographic)?
  • Are any vector graphic tools (eg, Illustrator) particularly more or less suited to the task than others?
  • Are there any online tools which are useful in the assembly process?

(As an example of the kind of thing I'm interested in making [but on much more modest scale], http://xkcd.com/980/)

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To the excellent answers already given, I just want to throw in a couple of resources that push the envelope a bit (my envelope anyway) on what you can do with data. You may not be able to use them on your next project (or ever), but they're fun and they'll make you think. –  Amanda May 8 '12 at 22:13
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7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Designing infographics is a large portion of what I do. Here's a rough breakdown of what I use.

  • Probably 95% of the work on infographics I do is in Illustrator. You'll want to keep everything in vector format as much as possible because accurate scaling, aligning, grouping, tweaking and changing are so important. If it's a good presentation of good information, then there may be call for differently laid out versions: web, print, poster, interactive, small shareable images for social media, thumbnails... and maybe even an updated version with next year's data. If you keep everything flexible, you'll thank yourself later. A few specific Illustrator features:

    • Its chart tools, which are rusty and frustrating but accurate and worth using (a few tips: remember to use s and r to scale and rotate, normal methods don't work, and when you need to break and ungroup the charts, always keep a grouped copy) and beat the workarounds needed in Corel Draw. That said, I gather that Inkscape has some plugins and is improving in this regard while Adobe neglect their frankly antiquated graph tools. As much as I like Illustrator, I'd drop in an instant if a rival had good, modern, reliable charting tools. Don't be tempted to copy, ungroup and edit charts from Excel - it works, they paste as vectors, but somewhere along the line they get slightly distorted and lose accuracy.
    • Its features to apply effects to accurately drawn shapes in an adjustable way, like art brushes, pattern brushes and transform effects. Other vector programs have features like these, but not to the same extent. Anything that makes elements re-usable, tweakable and reconfigurable helps.
    • There are loads of scripts for when you need to do things in a precise numerical way. When you need to do something unusual and precise, there's often a script for it. Also, the Align palette is great, and has non-obvious handy tricks like stacking things accurately.
  • I rarely use InDesign unless a graphic is to be part of a multi-page document (though some people use it for the whole text side of a graphic, placing every element from Illustrator). Two exceptions where I use it:

    • Anything built around a table format (even then, it's a good idea to keep wholly graphical elements as illustrator files and place them as needed - particularly for anything adjustable based on data like sparklines - InDesign is fine for placing data but can't do anything with it)
    • If it's very text-heavy, being more like a magazine layout with various graphics than a graphic with snippets of text
  • Photoshop is occasionally very handy for the times when using raster graphics is unavoidable, and Fireworks can be handy for preparing complex things for web or for a suite of variants with the same basic structure. I use both quite rarely for infographics, although there are some people who design one-off simple infographics for web mainly using Photoshop or Fireworks.

  • If you're interested at all in interactive infographics, and if you or a colleague know any javascript, another advantage of Illustrator (also true of Inkscape and CorelDraw) is that it can export SVG which can be used as interactive vector elements in a browser.

People sometimes use more simple programs like omnigraffle for simple diagrams, and the idea of low-barrier-to-entry infographics creation tools sometimes gets floated around, but those I've seen have been either just a bunch of pre-made infographics in disguise (e.g. visual.ly create) or ludicrously shallow (e.g. easel.ly).

Edit--

There are now a couple of low-barrier-to-entry tools that don't 100% suck and that add something worth mentioning to the standard infographic format (Vennage and infogr.am). They're early stages and a bit crude, and since they are essentially toy apps they're unlikely to ever be much use to designers except for in-house people avoiding mind-numbingly trival work ("Text and a couple of charts? That's really simple, you can actually do that yourself, here's how...") - but there's something worth noting about them: they export as HTML and SVG (infogr.am uses Raphael, Venngage uses HTML, CSS and D3).

Why does this matter? Because if you design infographics for publishing on web pages, and if you just whack up a png or gif and say job done without using methods like this to output the text as actual, real, live, semantic text in the web page's markup, this will mean that cheesey automated toys like these sites are going to be producing output that has an advantage over your work... I always use Raphael for things like this because it's the only thing that works in old IE and iOS.

Edit 2 ---

Influential information designer / data journalism pioneer Alberto Cairo recently blogged about tools of the trade, and has published some video tutorials on infographics in Illustrator aimed at beginners (I've not tried them so can't vouch for them). The popular dataviz blog Flowing Data also periodically has tutorials which are sometimes code, sometimes stats, sometimes design. These are usually aimed at statisticians looking to boost their design and visualization skills than the other way round, but might be useful.

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+1000 for "keep a grouped copy of your chart if you're going to ungroup it." Mother of mercy, trying to work with someone else's ungrouped logarithmic chart of the S&P from 1923 to present is like stabbing yourself in the eye with a chopstick dipped in lemon juice. –  Lauren Ipsum May 4 '12 at 16:20
    
+1 for the obviously painful memory of an ungrouped chart. –  huzzah May 7 '12 at 20:02
    
Fantastic answer. Thanks especially for the pointer about interactive infographics - definitely something to explore. –  Steve Bennett May 9 '12 at 4:49
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@SteveBennett Thanks! By the way, since writing this I saw this awesome example of Raphael being used to make what appears to be a designed-to-be-static printable graphic more engaging online. It's in French but it should be good for getting ideas... just don't expect the implementation to necessarily be easy parti-socialiste.fr/bilan-sarkozy –  user568458 May 9 '12 at 16:50
    
wow, that's pretty spectacular. (interesting subject matter too - I lived in France for two years, pre-Sarkozy though). raphaeljs.com –  Steve Bennett May 11 '12 at 0:33
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I use Microsoft Word to make infographics with the Publishing Layout, shapes tools, text boxes, and guides. I was able to make charts like these very simply and would like to give step-by-step video instructions on how others who do not have access to Adobe CS5 tools can build an info graphic library in MS Word. https://gumroad.com/l/MDDPA

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WebCode is a great and easy-to-use vector drawing app that instantly generates JavaScript+Canvas, SVG or CSS+HTML code. It is specifically geared for web infographics.

enter image description here

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To the excellent answers already given, I just want to throw in a couple of resources that push the envelope a bit (my envelope anyway) on what you can do graphically with data. (1) Nathan Yau's book Visualize This (or the flowingdata.com website), which if I remember right mentions a bunch of advanced infographic-creating tools and (2) Jer Thorpe's TED talk on "Making Data More Human" http://www.ted.com/talks/jer_thorp_make_data_more_human.html Enjoy sometime when you have a few extra minutes!

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"Infographic" isn't really a particular technology or even aesthetic. It's really just visually representing data. Use whatever tools make sense for you to use. For vector illustration, Adobe Illustrator is fine. Inkscape is a fine option as well. Corel Draw could work. There are a number of options.

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I agree with Lauren - Illustrator for charts. And it is possible to use Illustrator for the entire piece. However, I would lean towards using Indesign for a lot of tabular data and not simply multiple pages. Indesign handles table data much easier than Illustrator.

In reality, most pieces are not created using one piece of software. Charts and graphs done in Illustrator, photos or illustrations possibly completed using Photoshop. Then the whole thing combined with tables in Indesign since Indesign has better type tools.

But one could complete an entire piece in Illustrator or Photoshop for that matter.

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Illustrator for the charts. Depending on what else is in your infographic, you could either use Illustrator or InDesign for the non-chart materials. Illustrator can be used for basic to moderate layouts, and it's certainly fine for a one-sheet poster. Once you get into multiple pages, you're probably better off with InDesign.

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