How to Design an Effective Infographic with Icons

You don’t have to be a professional designer to create engaging, educational infographics with attention-grabbing icons.

Infographics are a key tool in the arsenal of any designer, marketer, brand or research firm. No matter what you’re using an infographic to explain, the methods you use are at the crux of good design — breaking complex ideas down into a visually pleasing, quickly digestible format. Whether you’re helping people understand the complexities of cryptocurrency, or simply want a more visually engaging way to explain an apple pie recipe, understanding the basics of infographic design will give you a leg up in visual communications of any kind.

What Story Are You Trying to Tell?

Infographics are designed to highlight an overarching theme or umbrella concept, supported by statistics that help paint a richer and more detailed picture. Whatever your industry or topic of choice, you want to convey information in a way that’s punchy and memorable — something that raises awareness and helps surface illuminating bits of data that often get buried in text. A good infographic lets you know at a glance what story is being told, without having to spend extra time reading, interpreting, and drawing your own conclusions.

Here are some of the stories you can tell using infographics:

Complicated Subjects Made Simple
Here’s what climate change means for Africa and Asia.
– Here’s how information travels from your
computer to data centers.

Surprising Facts / Challenging the Status Quo
If you thought sharks were the deadliest animals, think again.

Demographic Information / Personas: Getting to Know a Population
Here’s a persona of our average customer based on demographic statistics.

Business Results
Thanks to your donations, here’s what the ALS Association has accomplished.

Timeline or Steps in a Process
Learn the history of the combustion engine.
– Here are the steps to develop
your personal brand.

Compare and Contrast
Here are two competing consumer products: how do they compare?
– Here’s how
men and women responded differently to our dating app survey.

Each type of story can be translated into an overarching design scheme. In certain cases, like a timeline of a historical event, a clear step-by-step process format likely makes the most sense. For more complex sets of data (say, if you want to go beyond a mere timeline and examine the people, political forces, and demographic information about certain populations that all led up to an event or time period), you can group different types of data within a scheme to help people digest “chunks” of information piece by piece.

An infographic can have an overarching design scheme (such as a historical timeline or side-by-side comparison), though many will contain mixed data sets that rely on visual groupings to make information more digestible.

Above all, the element of surprise (or novel discovery) should be what drives your infographic. What has your data uncovered that’s new and noteworthy? Is it worth bringing to people’s attention, or is it irrelevant or unsurprising? If you work in marketing or advertising, consider what pieces of information will influence behavior.

What Types of Data Are You Illustrating?

Infographics don’t have to rely strictly on pie charts and bar graphs, but if you’ve gathered extensive numerical data, it should be presented in a simple and eye-catching way. Never make the reader do the heavy lifting of interpreting data, making their own comparisons, or formulating their own takeaways — call out key stats you want the reader to walk away with.

You may already be well-versed in translating data into handy visualizations (think chart functions in Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets). Once you bring your data visualizations into an infographic, consider the following:

  • What are the points that are most important to call out? Don’t just regurgitate the data — make it appealing to audiences. What was the most surprising discovery that your audiences will learn the most from? What will emotionally resonate with them, or spur them to take action or change everyday behaviors?
  • How can you make your data visualizations a more cohesive part of the picture? Instead of merely copying and pasting charts from Excel, make sure they use the same color scheme as the rest of the infographic.

The beauty of infographics, though, is that they can unite the statistical with the anecdotal to complete the story. What key stats could be augmented by a quote from a researcher, student, or consumer? What bits of background information would provide better context for the info presented?

The types of data you’ve collected dictate how you’ll present them. When building a graphic with multiple types of data, think about how you can group the different types to make them as easily readable as possible.

And finally, it should also go without saying: do your research, fact-check, and cite sources! Your credibility is at stake, and you don’t want to be caught giving unreliable or false information.

What’s the Best Tool For Designing Infographics?

Before you get started, think about what you want the final output to be and how it will be distributed. Will it live directly on your website? Many infographics are much taller than they are wide, to accommodate scrolling down a page. Will it be strictly for social media, shareable across Facebook? If so, you’ll want a canvas that’s more square. Will it be a poster? If so, what size, and will it be a horizontal or vertical layout?

Many creatives will attest that having constraints actually aids creativity — while the blank page can be daunting, deciding to stick with a singular vision within certain parameters (e.g. using just two colors and two typefaces) allows you to build your graphic more confidently, unencumbered by overthinking and the paralysis of choice. You’ll also be more inclined to test the limits of the visual form without losing the overall sense of cohesion.

If you’re a graphic design wiz, you may already know your way around tools like Illustrator or InDesign, but if you’re just starting out with little to no design experience, there are many tools available online with few barriers to entry. Any of the below resources will give you the basics you need (fonts, shapes, colors, backgrounds, and the ability to add icons and photos).

  • Google Slides
    This is the free-for-all presentation design tool that has the added benefit of the Noun Project Add-On, meaning you can install the extension and drag and drop icons (with your choice of color or background shape if you’re a NounPro subscriber) straight into your workspace. It comes with several great presentation templates, but to make a longer or more irregular presentation layout, you’ll have to go to File > Page Setup > Custom.
    Note that if you’re a Microsoft Office subscriber, Noun Project also offers an app integration for use in Powerpoint.
  • Projector
    This new creative platform is geared towards highly engaging and shareable content, including social media formats (such as Instagram stories) that you can jazz up with images, GIFs, and Noun Project icons.
  • Adobe Spark
    Also featuring a Noun Project integration, Spark is the simplified, plug-and-play member of the Adobe Creative Suite. Spark allows you to sign up for free and get started with a few basic templates, and if you want to enjoy their premium tools and templates, you can get your first two months of an individual membership free, after which you pay a monthly fee.
  • Canva
    Canva has the advantage of offering a slightly wider array of pre-made infographic templates, some of which are available for free. Note that enhanced editing capabilities and more premium templates, however, only come with a paid membership (as with Spark).

Getting Started: The Do’s and Don’ts of Design & Layout

Once you’re set up on the platform of your choice, with the key information you want to include, it’s time to dig in.

This is the time to experiment, and, as with any creative project, take plenty of time to search for inspiration! Sites like Pinterest can offer an endless wealth of graphic design inspiration— and as you come across designs you don’t like, see if you can pinpoint what isn’t working about them.

Here are a few basic rules of thumb when it comes to design:

Simplicity

You’re making an infographic because you want to highlight bits of information — not your entire data set. If the reader has to comb through whole paragraphs or every point on a bar chart to draw their own conclusions, you haven’t done your job of summarizing key points.

Think uncluttered, minimalist, and fewer characters than you use on Twitter for each data point (this is where icons will do the heavy lifting of communication).

The mantra of good design: “Don’t make me think.” Pare down your information as much as possible. Focus only on the essential, and say it in as few words as possible. Tell your viewer what’s important — don’t put the onus on them to parse and interpret.

Visual Consistency: Fonts and Colors

If you’re designing a piece of collateral for a brand or company you work for, you may already have a set of brand colors that will make it easy for audiences to know that this infographic is coming from you. If you’re building an infographic from scratch, consider how colors influence legibility and mood. Too many loud or clashing colors will be distracting. A gentler palette of harmonious hues with appear more polished and professional.

If you’re not well versed in color theory, sites such as Coolors.co or Adobe Color Themes are fantastic resources to browse popular existing color palettes that work well together.

For typefaces, try to use two or three tops, ideally from the same family or simply complementary. While many display typefaces are novel and eye-catching, legibility is your chief concern — they should inform more than they distract. Your body copy should use common fonts people are familiar with, and always have enough contrast to not get lost in (or compete with) the background. Finding complementary font pairings is an art in and of itself (or, even for many seasoned designers, a simple act of trial and error). You can always use a resource like fontjoy.com to browse recommended font pairings.

Color harmony is critical. If you’re not working with an existing brand color palette, quickly browse existing ones at coolors.co or color.adobe.com. Use no more than three (ideally just two) typefaces in your infographic. Typeface pairing is a fine, sometimes complex art — take out the guesswork by using a resource like fontjoy.com.

Visual Hierarchy and Scanability

People should be able to tell what your infographic is all about at a single glance. They should also have a sense of flow — what information they should start with and how it carries them through. A timeline doesn’t have to be a single, straight line, but visual cues like arrows and a clearly designated start and end will help readers scan (and always play to natural legibility — reading from left to right and top to bottom).

Hierarchy is suggested through a number of cues: size, color, contrast, and placement on the page (first vs. last). Any of these attributes can be mixed and matched to give more or less visual priority to a certain element. For both graphic and text elements, take time to experiment with each attribute. Try making a main icon bigger or smaller, or upping the contrast (such as a pure black icon on a white page, rather than an orange icon on a red page that may not stand out as much).

Headline typefaces should be have at least twice the size or twice the contrast of body copy, as a simple rule of thumb — you want them to stand out first (as well as being punchy and piquing interest).

It should be clear where the reader’s eyes should go next. Use hierarchy to your advantage like this infographic; don’t create a cluttered mess like this chart about military spending.

Alignment and Order

Many people have found ways to make dynamic, fluid infographics work well visually. As long as your information points are clustered together with a clear hierarchy to connect image, headline text, and corresponding body text, you can get away with a more “loose” layout to a degree. But if you’re just starting out, using a grid system is a more surefire way to maintain alignment and provide a pleasantly tidy layout so your readers can easily scan the page.

If your design program of choice doesn’t have a grid view, it likely at least offers you the option to insert a table which will help align your content along rows and columns. Always be sure to justify text consistently — decide whether your headlines and supporting copy will be left-, center-, or right-justified, and apply the same rule to every similar instance of information. Having multiple alignments, and ragged edges facing different directions, instantly adds to visual clutter and issues with legibility.

Grid systems and consistent alignment will help your infographic appear polished, clean, and professional. Be wary of clutter — though as you practice, you can explore more fluid and dynamic forms.

Balance and Groupings

Balance, more than any other principle of design, relies on your basic intuition: every element on your page will carry a visual weight based on size, contrast, and thickness of lines. You want to divide up your canvas in such a way that, even with an asymmetrical clustering of content, it will feel balanced instead of carrying disproportionate weight in one section or quadrant. Even a simple practice like squinting at your canvas can help you tune out the fine details and get a stronger sense of what the “heavy” and “light” spots are on your canvas. Always bear in mind, though, that white space is your friend — the eyes need natural points of rest, and if something in your design just “isn’t working,” it may be that there’s simply too much going on and you need to reduce your clutter.

Groupings become the crux of infographic design especially when you have multiple different types of data that should naturally go together instead of being scattered haphazardly. Many infographics will employ graphs, charts, numerical statistics and percentages, geographic maps, physical diagrams, and anecdotal stories. How you turn all that disparate data into something cohesive? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Which types of data naturally go well together (e.g. a pie chart percentage for a female population next to a matching pie chart for a male population)?
  • Which different data points are actually closely linked facets of the same story or idea (e.g. a fun fact about a geographic region, vs. a fun fact about a particular person, which could be separated on a page)?
  • Think about how your groupings can help the reader ingest lots of data more smoothly. Are too many disparate ideas making the overall story jarring and confusing? How can you either lump different data types together, or make a unifying statement that is supported by different data points (like different sentences in the same paragraph)?

Groupings facilitate a rhythmic cadence of information — establish a pattern so people know what to expect and can scan more easily. Think about what different data points go well together and support a unified thought, like sentences making up a thesis paragraph.

Using Icons for Impact

Icons are the stars of the show in an infographic (assuming you don’t have a rich, highly-detailed illustration to carry the weight). They attract attention more than words, but most importantly, they convey meaning and reiterate the themes more immediately than supporting text or data.

But icons shouldn’t merely take the place of photos or other detailed visuals — they should be a cohesive part of your visual branding, and work harmoniously with other elements.

Consider some of the following best practices to make the most out of icons:

  • First, use icons that share a similar line weight or general look and feel. Creators on the Noun Project often design collections of icons around a certain theme, so you can find dozens of icons that are not only thematically tied, but work harmoniously together because they share an aesthetic balance, similar line weight or fill, and consistent form language.
  • Also think about whether the icons aesthetically match your overall style or not. Does your infographic have a friendly, elementary school chalkboard theme? Try searching the Noun Project for “hand drawn collections.” Is it a futuristic, sci-fi looking infographic? Make sure to choose something more sleek and polished.

Think unity in design. Even a quick selection of icons should ultimately complement your overall aesthetic and work as a whole.

  • The most common use of an icon within an infographic, of course, is to concisely illustrate the concepts you’re speaking about. Many times, we focus on a single icon to immediately tell the audience what the accompanying factoid will be about, whether it’s quite literal (icons for types of fruit sold at a supermarket) or abstract (an icon to represent issues like cyber security, human psychology, or economics). The great thing about exploring Noun Project collections is that our Creators upload icons for any and all of the above — just plug in the right keywords to illustrate your ideas.
  • It’s also common to use a multiple icons for contrast or emphasis, or to illustrate a number or percentage (i.e. 1 out of every 10 people shares this characteristic). For small enough numbers — like how many people from a group of 10, or an average customer rating out of 5 stars — you can copy and paste an icon multiple times and change the color of some to highlight the desired statistic.

Icons can attract attention for each stat on your infographic. They help illustrate the story before readers have to rely on descriptive text. Part of the fun of icon-hunting on The Noun Project is brainstorming which icons best encapsulate the more abstract concepts you’re addressing.

Practice, Experiment, and “Prototype”

Design is born of experimentation — part planning and calculation, part trial and error. With the principles of simplicity, balance, contrast, alignment, and other design fundamentals in mind, you’re free to explore how each one comes into play while trusting your own basic intuition while you format, adjust, nudge, and tweak.

It’s always helpful to step back from your design or, even better, to ask someone whether the information you’re presenting is clear. Headlines and titles should be catchy, descriptive, and intriguing, and your icons and other visuals should not only be relevant and helpful in telling your story, but should be a cohesive, consistent, and harmonious flourish that complements your existing aesthetic.

Feel free to treat your working infographic as a prototype: you do, after all, want this to accomplish a goal of educating people. Does the design assist them in learning new concepts. Does the audience or “user” know how to visually navigate through your design to find what they need?

For further reference, check out the following:


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