The quality of an infographic is always determined—in part—by the quality of the content that was used to create it. As such, the source of that content plays an essential role. Using low-quality, biased, or excessive sources will get you a graphic that is fractured, feels forced, or fails to tell a coherent story.
Luckily, high-quality sources are easier to find now more than ever. They’re available from governments and industry trade associations at regular intervals, and, in most cases, they’re free to access. Additionally, numerous research institutes and think tanks are constantly producing and publishing data sets. In short, a wealth of data is at our fingertips.
To ensure that we use the best sources for every data-driven infographic we create, Column Five adheres to these five rules.
1. Make Sure the Source(s) Tell a Story.
If you’re not ‘telling a story’ with your infographic (read: explaining a narrative or allowing a narrative to be explored), then you’re doing it wrong. Essentially that story will be derived from the sources that you decide to use. People are going to want to engage an infographic that tells a story that they care to know. See my previous article on ways to identify story-worthiness for more on this subject specifically. In short, there is no shortage of data out there, but not all data is all that interesting, even if it’s visualized in a very interesting way.
2. Make Sure Your Sources are Reliable.
Not all data producers are created equal. Always use data sets from as unbiased a producer as possible. Good sources include data collected or produced by government agencies, such as the statistics compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau or the Department of Labor. Other top-tier data sources can include industry white papers, surveys conducted by reputable think tanks/research organizations or findings published in academic publications.
It’s important to note that surveys conducted by polling agencies or think tanks, while usable, often have a political agenda so always use discretion. Another great source of data is proprietary user data. We have used this for a number of infographics, and if you choose to use this type of data, you should make it easy for people to find out more about the data, eg., how it was gathered, as well as how old it is, how many people were surveyed, etc.
Most of our sources are found online. To judge whether or not a source is appropriate, ask yourself the following:
- Who wrote this webpage? Does the author have credentials?
- Is this webpage affiliated with a credible organization?
- When was the website last updated?
- What is the purpose of the organization that is hosting the website?
- Does the author provide a bibliography?
3. Make Sure Your Sources are Relevant.
The world changes quickly, and the pace of change is accelerating. To ensure you’re on the right track for sourcing your infographics, use the most recently published version of the data you’ve decided to use. Some data producers, such as the Department of Labor, revise their data on an annual or even monthly basis, but this is not always the case for every data producer.
As a rule of thumb, try not to use data that’s more than a year old. Two years is acceptable in some cases, if that’s the best you can get. Beyond this, use discretion. In all cases, be up front about the age of the data set you are using; you would expect the same from others. Always list the age within the sources or in the graphic’s copy. This provides context and clarity, and is a practice no different than writing a college research paper.
If you are using multiple sources, make sure they are complementary. Even if you only use two data sources, they can still create a lot of variance. Using two data sets that clash, such as data collected by think tanks on opposite sides of the political spectrum, makes crafting a narrative difficult. To avoid disseminating inconsistent or biased information, make sure that the sources you use complement each other. Complementary sources cover the same type of data, collected in the same time frame, using similar questionnaire designs. It’s hard to believe that a coherent message could be created using using data produced by both Peta and the Bookings Institute, isn’t it?
4. Limit Your Sources for Consistency.
Finding multiple data sets from multiple sources on one subject can be exciting, but don’t get ahead of yourself. You can’t create a consistent narrative with 15 different sources (Look up any ’15 Things You Didn’t Know about Boobs’ or ’20 Tips for coping Mesothelioma’ and you’ll see what I mean). Each additional source you use is another chance of introducing mistakes or biases from the original research into your graphic. The fewer sources you use, the better.
A good rule of thumb is to use only one data set, if this is an option. Two or three are acceptable. But the more you add, the more variance you get from different methods, different contexts, and different priorities of the data producers.
5. Cite Your Sources Appropriately.
When it comes to structuring the content, make sure that a proper context is provided for your readers. While we’ve already established that data should be recent, reliable and credible and consistent, when you’re creating an infographic from multiple sources it is important to provide as much context to the reader as possible about what information came from what source.
Always cite the primary source (NOT the Wikipedia article) in the graphic. When citing sources in text, specify the source and year published.
Bad: “One survey found that…”
Good: “A 2012 Microsoft survey found…”
Remember: infographics are only as good as the content they convey. And, data-driven infographics are only as good as the data they use. To produce consistent, high-quality work, ensure that you are always using strong data sets that are timely, work well with each other (if there are multiple data sets), and are provided by reputable organizations. These elements will create a strong foundation upon which to build your design, resulting in a story told as powerfully as possible.