If you’ve ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation or read a quarterly report, you’ve been bored by a chart or graph. Chances are, it was blue, red and yellow on a grey, lined background. Maybe it had a 3D effect to make it ‘pop’. And you’re probably guilty of creating a few of these lacklustre graphics.

Most people could stand to improve their informational graphic, or ‘infographic’, design skills. An infographic is a combination of words, numbers, and pictures that tells a story quickly and clearly – pie charts, bar charts, and line graphs are all examples. And despite the word ‘graphics’, you don’t need specialised software or an art degree to produce engaging infographics. Nor do you need the fancy effects in office software – in fact, they’re the last things you should use. Instead, follow a few design rules that can work in any application.

Understand the information
The best charts and graphs tell stories of growth, reduction, contrast, time, or value in a straightforward, concise way. Michael Murphy, the creative director of Inbound Logistics magazine, says that your job when creating an infographic is to figure out the main narrative and find the information’s hidden drama.

To do that, you first have to understand the data’s implications. Then you have to look at the data through the eyes of your target audience. Are you giving them the most important facts? Are you speaking their language? Avoid jargon unless you’re sure the terms mean the same thing to everyone in the audience.

Once you know exactly what you want to communicate, strip it down to the essentials. Heather Jones, deputy art director at Best Life magazine, analyses and pares down her raw data before including it in an infographic. Her advice: for the clearest charts and graphs, take unnecessary information out and round numbers up or down.

Choose the right delivery method
In general, bar charts are best for comparing amounts or showing trends over time. Diagrams or flowcharts are better when you’re illustrating processes or relationships.

After you’ve made that distinction, let the numbers help you choose a type of infographic. For example, use a bar chart only when the numbers you’re comparing are dissimilar – a row of roughly equal bars doesn’t make much of an impression. Use pie charts only when percentages equal 100 per cent.

Then, before you jump onto the computer to create your infographic, sketch something out on paper. This ensures that your ideas, not the software, will guide your infographic. Now is also the time to think about where to put text and to start writing your headlines or titles.

You should play around with the chart and graph templates in programs such as Adobe Illustrator, Apple Numbers, Microsoft Excel, and Red Rock Software’s DeltaGraph (www.redrocksw.com) only after you’ve refined your paper sketches.

Emphasise what’s important
Four things can help you highlight your infographic’s most-important data and convey information quickly: layout, size, font, and colour.

Layout Most people look first at a page’s top left, so that’s a natural place to set the stage for the rest of your chart or graph, with a headline or some introductory text. It may also be a good location for a large, important image you want viewers to notice before other elements.

Successful infographics tend to be wider than they are tall, perhaps because our eyes evolved to be good at detecting differences on the horizon. But don’t force your information into a horizontal form if the data is easier to understand in another shape.

Size In general, the least important information should be the smallest. But don’t use too many text sizes, or your viewers will get confused. For example, you could stick to three text sizes: the headline would be the largest; any intro text, a little smaller; and the chart text, the smallest.

Font Limit yourself to one or two type families to keep your text easy to read. Sans serif typefaces are good for most infographics, because they have larger, cleaner lines than serif fonts, minimising clutter. Helvetica, Gill Sans, Lucida Grande, and Trebuchet MS are all sans serif fonts that ship with OS X. Other choices are Franklin Gothic, Myriad, and Stone Sans.

Many of these font families contain variations, so, for example, you can use Myriad for the text and Myriad Bold to add oomph to a headline. Murphy notes that charts and tables are good candidates for fonts’ condensed variations because they allow type to be set at larger sizes without taking up a lot more space.

Colour Colour can do wonders to help important information stand out – but only if used sparingly. For example, to make sure she’s using colour in the most effective way, Jones starts in black and white. Once she’s sure her data is clearly communicated, she then adds colour in moderation to further differentiate parts of the infographic.

Avoid the bold primary colours that are the default in most charting programs, as they can make it difficult to create emphasis with colour. (Also keep colourblind viewers in mind; many can’t distinguish between green and red.) Instead, adopt a relatively muted palette (such as earthy greens and yellows) or pick one colour and use darker shades and lighter tints of it.

You should also consider all the ways that the chart or graph may be distributed. If there’s a chance that, say, field offices will be outputting it to black-and-white printers, you’re safer using only black, white, and shades of grey.

In this pair of charts, Michael Murphy kept his colour and graphics choices simple, and avoided boxing information to ensure the numbers wouldn’t get lost in the clutter.

Common mistakes to avoid
Once you have a solid draft of your infographic, step back and eye it critically. This is a good time to show it to other people and ask for their opinions. Your goal is to determine whether you’ve made any of the following mistakes:

No focal point If bars, pie slices, or lines in your graphic are similar sizes and colours, there’s no hierarchy of information to draw the viewer’s eye to one thing first and then lead it through the rest of the information. Say you’re showing that more beach balls are sold on hot days and the bar for each day in your graphic is grey. Change the bar representing the hottest day to red and it instantly becomes the focal point.

Inconsistency Similar elements should look the same, in colour, size, placement, and typeface. If the infographic’s visual cues are inconsistent – for instance, if you randomly vary the size of the beach balls in the preceding example – you risk confusing your viewer.

Likewise, charts that are on the same page and use the same scale should be the same size. For instance, if you’re creating a chart that relates high temperatures to sales of sunscreen, and it’ll appear on the same page as the beach ball chart, the sizes of the overall charts and the elements within them should be consistent. That way, viewers can easily compare the information and better understand each chart.

Too much stuff Get rid of non-essential information – sometimes called ‘chartjunk’ – that competes with critical information.

For example, you may be using a grid to plot the heights of bars in a chart, but that doesn’t mean you need to show each grid line. And if that chart is showing growth over time, emphasise the starting point and finishing point by removing the numbers above each in-between bar. Editing out chartjunk like this strengthens your message.

Borders Many people have an almost overwhelming urge to box in their data. Fight it, especially if your infographic also has details like axis lines, tick marks, grid lines, and text. Murphy also shuns vertical lines on his charts’ and graphs’ left and right sides. The openness this creates directs the viewers’ eyes to important information.

Empty effects Did you notice that the Emphasise what’s important section didn’t include 3D, shading, reflections, or textures as part of your tool kit? That’s because less really is more. You want people to focus on the information, not meaningless bells and whistles.

An infographic has to work on a flat level first. Although dimensional graphics, perspective distortions, and fancy effects are popular now, they’re usually just chartjunk. If you must use them, do so sparingly.