2014 Final Four: An infographic look at how the teams measure up

Scribble creates an infographic with the help of a few experts.

  • The 2014 NCAA men's basketball Final Four starts up on Saturday (April 5) in Arlington, Texas. Sixty-eight teams began their quest for glory when the tournament commenced three weeks ago but, come Monday night (April 7), one team -- Kentucky, Connecticut, Florida or Wisconsin -- will be cutting down the nets at AT&T Stadium.

    I decided to design an infographic as a companion piece to the big event. Being new to the discipline, I reached out to some leading experts in the infographic field to give me some advice on how to proceed.

    My panel included:

    Zia Somjee, Vancouver illustrator whose "How to be a superhero" piece was lauded by one creative design blog this past November as the best infographic on the web.

    David Paliwoda, a London designer whose elegant "Distance To Mars" infographic made the short list of 2013's top interactive designs.

    Danny Ashton of Manchester-based design group Neomam, who helped create 13 reasons why your brain craves infographicsa brilliantly-executed piece that makes a compelling case in favor of visual mediums.

    But could they help me create a quality infographic of my own? Stay tuned...

    Walk me through the initial steps you take to create an effective infographic...

    Zia: Research is key; it gives you the opportunity to look through a wealth of information, view points, and other work done on the subject to really make informed decisions about what to include in your design. This really leads into the next step: content definition. After all of the research, you need to trim the fat; cut away the content that is irrelevant to create really sharp messaging. Once you have done this, in my mind the hard work is done, now comes the fun part - illustrating and producing! This phase for me is pure production, and should feel like smooth sailing if the planning stages were done well.

    Danny: The first thing we do is try to understand why [the infographic] exists and who we want to talk to. We do initial research on what is already out there. There's really not anything new -- you're just doing it in a different way. We look at various things to trigger ideas: Blogs, web sites and places like Reddit where we can see what the crowd votes for. We reach out to experts. We bring all that information together and share it. We then identify the type of infographic we are doing and begin the design process.

    The best ideas become "social currency" -- Danny Ashton

    What kind of exercises do you go through to come up with a workable concept?

    David: Generally the ideas aren’t thought up on the spot -- if you keep a creative mind and record any idea, good or bad, they start piling up. From there it’s just a case of working out the best fit for the task. Always be experimenting with new technology, concepts and styles. 

    Danny: We do creative games to get our creative juices flowing. We are very much into Contagious, a book by Jonah Berger. We use his studies to see what kind of ideas trigger emotion. The best ideas become "social currency."

    What’s the biggest challenge in doing this work? How hard is it to take complex subjects and break them down into easy-to-understand concepts?

    David: Trying to get the right level of abstraction that is still true to the original content is the most difficult part of any info graphic. Keeping the concept as simple as possible isn’t easy either.

    Zia: It's kind of like essay writing where you have to come up with a thesis statement, or what question or idea you will be seeking to explore in your work. If you have a clear and very specific thesis to your project, it can help to act as a filter to what content is relevant or not. Other than that, it's nothing more than hours of sifting.

    If you have a clear and very specific thesis to your project, it can help to act as a filter to what content is relevant or not. -- Zia Somjee

    How long does it generally take to create an infographic? Do you work off of existing templates or structures?

    David: Like all design, the best approach is one that’s bespoke to the subject. Templates and existing frameworks are useful in pinch for sketching out ideas, but if you use them for final production you won’t stand out any more than your peers. It may take longer, but a ‘safe’ or mediocre infographic is wasted effort for everyone involved.

    Zia: It varies on the subject, and how comfortable I am with the art style I will be using. The superhero infographic took me about 15 hours in total - but that was because I was quite clear on the subject matter and used a visual style I knew well. I'm sure a subject such as "climate change", for example, would take quite a bit more research before I could even begin production. 

    Danny: It's generally a four week process. We do everything from scratch. We stay away from templates since we want to keep our products ever-changing.

    What advice would you give someone before they create their first infographic?

    David: Spend time on the story. A bad narrative can’t be saved. Don’t let down a great idea with poor implementation. Don’t be afraid of looking at what other people are doing -- you can’t compare your behind-the-scenes with their highlight reel (Thanks to Gavin Strange for that one).

    Zia: I'll just reiterate what I already stated above: Research! Take your time in this phase and don't rush to make lovely illustrations and drawings. Understand your content to the point where you feel like an expert on it, and only then can you do justice to it.

    Danny: Make sure you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you're trying to say. Stay narrow, but deep. Ask yourself, who is interested in it? Lastly, I think it's a good idea to reach out to someone in the space that the info graphic resides in and ask them what they like. 

    Spend time on the story. A bad narrative can't be saved -- David Paliwoda

    What makes infographics so effective?

    David: It’s sort of a leading question; I think a lot of infographics are awful. But when one hits you with a message that's right on the button and makes you feel something for it, it’s obviously a winner.

    Danny: It's the way society is going. People have less time to consume information and so we're going to formats that allow them to digest it the quickest. If a new format is more engaging, then that's going to be the preferred format. 

    Zia: The world is a big place, there is a lot of information out there, and people are impatient. That is a recipe for infographics becoming a trend. I would say that most of the infographics on the web are not that effective in the way they deliver information. Rather, they are effective in entertaining and good at getting people interested in a subject. They are fun, they are fast, and they get general ideas across easily, which is why I think they are being embraced by companies who want to get some traction to their business or web site. The really effective information design is so much more than displaying pretty graphics (which I am a culprit of). True information design draws new conclusions from large sets of information, and really helps to bring clarity to complex concepts.

    Zia closed out the panel by recommending this video from the 2012 TED Conference featuring New York-based data artist Jer Thorp:

    TEDxVancouver - Jer Thorp - The Weight of Data
    by TEDx Talks via YouTube

    With all this quality advice, creating a high-quality infographic should be a piece of cake, right?

    Given my limited time and resources -- after all, I don't have an experienced design team to work with -- I decided to keep the concept simple. There are plenty of examples of past Final Four infographics covering more conventional topics.

    So I decided to go in a different direction. I asked: What makes the Final Four stand out? What's so fascinating about watching these players skillfully navigate a 90-foot court while bouncing a leather ball? 

    And then it struck met that one reason we watch basketball is simply because the players are so dang tall. The novelty of a 7-foot player moving with all the athletic grace of a normal-sized human is fascinating.

    So my inaugural ScribbleLive infographic focuses on height. To view the "Tale of the Tape" of the 2014 Final Four, click here.

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