The Use of Infographics in Preservation Planning by Andrea Livi Smith and Tasha Horton, University of Mary Washington
Andrea: -as a newly graduated undergrad BA it’s kind of tough to make it down here so I will read her portion of this. I don’t know that all of you know what an infographic is so I figured I’d start with that. What is an infographic? An infographic is a way to show information, data, that is showed graphically. As you can see in this very neat infographic which I did not create myself made with Legos, it is data that are sorted, arranged, and presented visually. You can use all sorts of infographs, and in fact many have been used over the years so really any kind of cartogram is an infograph. You can use timelines. You can show conceptual relationships like organizational charts – those are infographics – any kind of quantitative comparison, and of course a combination thereof.
Now this is particularly useful I think because let’s face it, preservation planning and any associated field have just a ton of very complex concepts, issues, legislation, groups, relationships that we have to deal with on a regular basis. We always operate at a disadvantage, which is that the general public have no idea what we do. Trying to connect what the general public is something that I think we all strive for, and infographics can really help to do this.
Now on the left you can see an infographic that PennDOT developed for Section 106 to make it look like a board game, the world’s most boring board game, I guess. It’s not a very good infographic. I’m sorry if PennDOT ever watches this video or whatever. This shows that in fact infographics can and are used very often in preservation planning. In fact, they’re used everywhere. Open a New York Times; you will find many, many of them. They’re used by newspapers. They’re used by the government. They’re used by for-profits like Angie’s Lists there telling you about how a historical home is bad probably. It can be a scary thing; it can be a pretty thing; it can be cutesy. You can really show all sorts of different information with these, as I mentioned. People tend to look at them and keep that information, internalize that information; whereas you give them a paragraph of text, their eyes will glaze over and they will learn nothing.
These infographs can be used for all sorts of things. The one in the middle is particularly close to my heart. A friend of mine works at the Rails to Trails Conservancy and when that Supreme Court decision came down a few months ago, people were really scared that the decision would really dissuade rail banking and be terrible for rails trails. They come up with this infographic and put it up within 24 hours. It was up on all social media. The reason it’s close to my heart is that they misspelled “no effect.” They said “no affect” and I very kindly warned my friend about the that so they were able to fix it before the internet noticed. This is great for quick response documents. It’s also great for things like form-based codes or other documents that really need that graphical support to really understand what you’re trying to do.
I taught a class on this in the spring for seniors. It was a capstone class in preservation planning. I had 14 students and during the course of the semester they learned how to create infographics in various pieces of software, and when about in doing so. What we found is that you can’t really reinvent the wheel with this kind of thing. Infographics are used for everything. You can find an infograph on literally every topic ever. In fact, my students tried to find some, and I’m not kidding. Every kind of beer has been infographiced, mustache, beard, movies, superheroes, whatever. Doesn’t matter: anything.
What you need for any infographic is three things. You need a story or idea. What’s the point? You need information. It can be quantitative, qualitative, or both. Then you need to actually go ahead and design it. A good infographic, however, is not that easy to do, and in fact one of the books that I assigned showed something very similar to this. They actually stole it themselves from Vitruvius so I don’t feel too bad stealing it from them. Firmness, commodity, delight – same concept here. You want to have enough detail that this is useful, but you also don’t want it to be so complex that people can’t read it. Finally, you do want to try to make it beautiful. If you managed to do those three things and balance them appropriately, then you will come up with a very effective way of communicating information for all sorts of topics.
The first part of the semester was given over to one particular giant problem, which is Section 106. I divided the class into three teams and three different teams came up with three very, very different infographics on Section 106. This particular one used snails as a theme; I wonder why. You’ll see that on the left it has the how does this affect you as a person in the general public. On the right it has a definition of key terms and actors. In the middle is the process. They started out with a very vertical infographic, which is very traditional, and then they decided to break it up into different pieces.
This is where my student Tasha was going to take over so I am now going to switch to reading what she wrote, and I will try to forward the slides as I do this. We’ll see how well I do. I make no promises. Here we go.
Over the course of a semester my classmates and I worked towards creating various different infographics concerning aspects of preservation planning. However, we ran into several challenges along the way. we initially started out the class by creating infographics about the Section 106 process. What we learned is that while we were all preservation majors, very few of us had retained all of the pertinent information about Section 106, so we had to travel back and teach ourselves the process all over again to give not only ourselves a better understanding, but also a wider, non-preservation crowd a general knowledge of how this process functions.
Additionally, we ran into the woes of conflicting creative ideas and time constraints. Several of us felt that our voices were not being heard within our groups, a common complaint with group projects, but we all still did our best to contribution in any way we could. When we began to create our individual infographics the time constraints and problems with other group members disappeared, but we learned that we were not the infographic superheroes we thought we were. It was quickly discovered that although we thought we could all easily create an infographic on our own after being frustrated by our group projects, it was helpful and less stressful to have more than one brain working on such a huge undertaking. We struggled with learning new programs and often received help from our classmates who were more technology-oriented.
Some of us picked topics we thought we knew about but then learned that we had to research more in-depth because we didn’t understand it quite as well as we thought we did. Our classmates, our professor, and Google were the greatest helps during this whole process. We learned to help one another and to rely on the critiques of our classmates without getting offended, so that in the end we could create the best possible infographic. We worked for almost half the semester on our individual infographics. We would work on them for a couple days individually, and then as a class we would sit down and look at one another’s and give critique. After that we’d work on them another couple days and seek out opinions of our peers once more.
The fact that our class was studio-oriented was extremely helpful because many of us struggled creatively and relied upon the help of our classmates to guide us into a better design and final product. Right now you’re seeing the website where all of my student’s work is posted. By the way, this is an side. This is not Tasha’s writing. You can check it out if you want at infographics.umwblogs.org. I’m going to pull a couple of these up because they relate to what she has to say. Back to Tasha.
We all ended up creating very different infographics varying in both topic and design. Some of us created streamlined classic-looking infographics, while others went more in-depth and created interactive ones. My classmate Garrett Holfish created an infographic about FAR and TDR that combines both of these elements. While his may at first look like a simplistic clean look, Garrett went above and beyond and created individual animated gifts to demonstrate FAR and TDR. Garrett was more comfortable with new computer programs and he used that to his advantage to create his final product. Here you see his, with the elephant is my particular favorite one.
My classmate John Sutil chose to create one about urban growth boundaries. What is so unique about John’s infographic is that not only is it all hand-drawn, but he did it all in a program that very few people are comfortable with anymore: Microsoft Paint. He created every image on his infographic using solely paint, while most other students used programs like Photoshop and InDesign. What resulted was a unique design resembling an 8-bit video game.
The final infographic I will show you is my classmate Sarah Mendelsohn’s, who created hers by replicating one that she saw and liked in the New York Times. Since her topic was on increasing the building height limits in Washington D.C., she altered her infographic to replicate the Washington Post instead. Additionally, she learned how to create click-through buttons in InDesign so she combined the classic newspaper look with interactive technology to create an infographic that one does not have to scroll down. These are the buttons to go through the different pages.
While some of us went into this class not quite understanding how creating an infographic about planning would be beneficial to us or the public in any way, we loved knowing that the final products we created could potentially help us be noticed by future employers. At first we grew frustrated and despaired – her word – over how our final outcomes would appear but we eventually walked away from the class feeling confident that our variety of new technology, research, and teamwork skills had helped us to create fun and easy to understand infographics for both the preservation world and the general public.
Now I’m going to take back over from imaginary Tasha again. This is another student infographic. This one was done in yet another piece of software, so all these students in the class had to learn Adobe InDesign and Adobe Photoshop as part of this course. However, for their final project I gave them they could do whatever they wanted. This particular student used an app called Sketch 3 for the Mac, which is really, really nice. All of those buildings at the bottom which form the bar chart, she hand-drew herself in that software. They’re all proportionally correct for what she’s trying to show, so really pretty neat.
Why use this? What’s the point? I do think that this has a lot of advantages. First of all, it’s basically free. What you need is someone who knows technology to do this, and it turns out many of our students and interns are perfectly capability of doing this. It’s a great way to reach a broad audience. I know that we all struggle with this as preservationists. It’s very hard to reach the general public. I know I’m a preservationists so I’m kind of biased, but I would much rather look at this than a paragraph of text, too, honestly. I think it’s beautiful. It’s fantastic for conveying very complex information without talking down to people, without appearing, well, haughty or anything like that in the process. It’s particularly great at showing all sorts of data that we have to show all the time like geographic data, quantitative data.
Finally, and I hope at some point we’re going to lose this reputation for being Luddites, being aware and able to use technology can really, really help. Now of course there are practical considerations here. A really tough practical consideration in this case is that it’s really difficult to find software that is easy, free, and still allows you to to have fine-tuned control. You’re going to give up one of those things. I have a colleague at Mary Washington who teaches infographics for freshman and she uses freely available web-based software, and they’re great, but then you don’t own the data anymore. You cannot control what you put into your infographic quite as completely as you can with something like InDesign. That said, InDesign is also $400.
Now there are free versions. You can use Gimp, but Gimp is difficult to use. You can use halfway software. I like that Sketch software I was telling you about. That’s only $70. I know this is not a ton of money, but especially when you’re talking about schools or non-profits, every penny counts. Trying to figure out how to make this work effectively is a little bit challenging. In particular, I think one question that I was really concerned about during this process is could you reuse these templates then in the long term. For something like NCPTT, if you’re going to produce an infographic you might as well produce a series of infographics that all use the same graphical elements, same font, same colors, etc. then it really pays off to use something like INDesign, which has really great templating, vs. something that’s free. That’s definitely something to think about in terms of the usability of these things.
Overall I do think that infographics are here to stay. I think they’re a great way to reach people. I encourage you to experiment with your own students or interns or colleagues to try to reach the general public and see if you has as positive results as we did. Thank you.
Infographics are nothing new: Minard’s seminal map of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia is still impressive one hundred fifty years later. Still, infographics have recently exploded in popularity. They can now be found in almost any publication, from the New York Times on down. Numerous scholars have opined both on their effectiveness and on their usages, most famously Edward Tufte, who has published extensively on the matter.
Infographics are proving to be one of the most effective ways of conveying information to a broader audience: they require only a short attention span, and are easily disseminated either in print or better yet, online. They are particularly useful in preservation planning because they break down and explain processes and ideas that may otherwise be difficult for the public – and even preservationists – to understand.
A senior capstone course sought to teach students how to use this emerging medium in a preservation planning context. During the semester, students learned varied software including Adobe Photoshop and InDesign and the Apple iWork suite in both formal sessions and through trial and error. They worked first in teams and then on their own. The early team projects tackled the Section 106 process. This allowed students to develop their skills and start finding their style in a supportive setting. After this introduction, students embarked on their own piece, where they selected a preservation planning issue. Their chosen topics included gentrification, transfer of development rights, urban growth boundaries, and adaptive reuse. In a studio environment, with periodic in-class critique, the final infographics were developed and fine-tuned.
This paper discusses the development of the course, the challenges of the learning process – particularly regarding the software requirements – and the impact on the students as a whole. In addition to the course instructor, a student from the course will also provide her perspective via Skype. As digital media become more and more mainstream not only in daily life but our professional lives as well, the skills imparted in this course will become even more relevant. One student commented at the end of the semester that “this should be offered every year”, making it clear that this is of real use to preservation planners.