Animated infographics and online storytelling: Words from the wise

Sometimes the best research is the voice of experience. Alberto Cairo, former director of infographics and multimedia at in Madrid, is known worldwide for the work he has done using animated graphics as a powerful storytelling tool. While at, his staff won more NetMedia, Malofiej, and Society for News Design awards than any other publication in the world. In the 2004 edition of the SND.ies, the Society for News Design’s Best of New Media Design competition, Cairo’s department won the first gold medal ever given for breaking-news coverage.

Now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and a colleague of co-columnist Laura Ruel), Cairo has been taken his hands-on knowledge and moved it into the classroom. Here is a link to some of his students’ work:

International animated infographics expert Alberto Cairo is writing his first book, Visual Journalism: Print and Multimedia Infographics Storytelling.

Many online journalists are anticipating the book’s release, which should be in 2008, because there is an urgent need for the guidelines it provides. So, below we have offered you a form of a “sneak peek” – Cairo’s advice for multimedia storytelling using informational graphics.

Q: Define animated infographics and describe why they are a powerful storytelling tool for journalists?

A: Traditional infographics consist of the use of the tools of graphic design, illustration, cartography and statistical representation to convey journalistic information. Web infographics increase the number of tools to include the ones of online storytelling: 3D and 2D animation, interactivity, audio and video.

Infographics are difficult to define precisely because of their multiple and flexible nature. Almost any informative representation where verbal and visual elements are combined, and that is intended to tell a news story, can be considered an infographic.

Infographics have been crucial throughout the history of journalism to explain things that could not have been told otherwise. It is obvious that there is not better way to display large sets of data than with a good statistical chart, or to provide geographical context to a story than with a map. In my book I explain that, on an abstract level, an information graphic is an aid to thinking and understanding. This is not a new idea, of course. A good infographic makes patterns arise, discovers trends, condenses enormous amounts of information in a very small space.

To understand why infographics are so important to modern journalism, try to think about stories such as September 11th, the invasion of Iraq or the shootings at Virginia Tech without them.

Q: What are three current examples of excellent animated infographics? Why are they effective?

A: The New York Times has the best statistical online infographics in the news industry at the moment. They have finally understood that in the Internet era infographics cannot be just static, linear representations. Sometimes you have to let the reader transform the information and play with it. You have to let the readers adapt the data to their needs.

Cairo believes that the work of is some of the best online inforgraphic storytelling. The graphic above is one where users can interact and “play” with the numbers themselves.

Among the best recent multimedia coverage, I would highlight the Times’ interactive about the Virginia Tech shootings. The combination of audio, video and information
graphics makes this breaking news coverage one of the best I’ve ever seen. You see, almost any publication can create a good long-term, feature project online. It is much, much more difficult to do that in a tight deadline.

The Times’ ability to create quality animated storytelling on deadline is noteworthy, according to Cairo.

With their most recent hires, The New York Times is trying to emulate the model we used at back in 2000-2005. The are focusing more on breaking stories, rather than on features. Don’t get me wrong, features are great, but a newspaper should focus first on up-to-date information.

The best animated diagrams can still be found in Spanish news organizations. and keep publishing great linear explanations. Athough their work is still a great source of inspiration for professionals worldwide, both news organizations need
to think about new ways of presenting information. They cannot continue to succeed if you by using the same formula over and over again. In the current environment, your work gets dated quickly if you do so.

Spanish news organizations, such as, still are producing the best animated diagrams and linear explanations.

There are news organizations in the United States that currently are taking steps in the right direction. I would mention The Dallas Morning News, San Jose Mercury News, and The Boston Globe. The Sun-Sentinel is still a major reference for multimedia graphics as well.

Q: What are the most common mistakes multimedia journalists make when creating animated infographics? How can they avoid them?

A: The first and gravest mistake that individuals make believing that infographics are a branch of graphic design or that they have anything to do with illustration.

Infographics, like any other form of journalism storytelling rely on solid, accurate content. It is great if you can create cool 3-D animations and great interactive scenes, but if your content is weak, the presentation will be weak. There are not good infographics without good reporting.

As a second mistake is the fact that many people think that online infographics can be created just by “translating” print pieces to the Web. Unfortunately, this is what is happening in many newsrooms worldwide. That’s the wrong approach because what you usually end with is with a still picture with a bunch of roll-over buttons. In order to create a great multimedia infographics piece, you have to think about it from the very beginning, on the planning process, rather than consider it a subsidiary element that depends on the content generated by the print side. Print and online use different languages that share the same root grammar. They are dialects.

Q: Can you provide us with a checklist of questions for editors to ask themselves when deciding if an animated infographic is the best storytelling method for a given topic?

A: Checklist:

  • Can the story be explained using a map, a statistical chart or a diagram? If you need to show the “where” of the story, you definitely need a map.
  • Are there size, length, distance, amount comparisons involved? Then, you need a chart.
  • Is there any process or procedure hat can be better understood by means of a visual display? Create a diagram.
  • Do you need to recreate the scene where the story took place? In this case: do you have enough information to recreate it accurately, without making up details? This is crucial. The old infographics motto says: if you don’t know how it is, don’t draw it. I’ve added my own corollary to that motto: if you don’t know how it moves, don’t animate it.
  • [More suggestions from Cairo at:]

    Q: What suggestions do you have for individuals in an online newsroom who want to begin creating animated infographics?

    A: It’s quite simple: give it a try. You don’t need to be a Flash guru to create online infographics. Learning just the basics (something that can be done in two or three days of training) can give you the main tools needed to start working. Then, with experience, you will incorporate new tools and techniques. That’s the path we followed at back in 2000. Nobody in my team had any experience.

    The conceptual side is also extremely important: you need to educate yourself. Read about the psychology of vision. Understanding the basics of cognitive science is crucial. Study cartography, statistics and information design. There are many great books out there.

    Q: What are some things the industry can do now to challenge itself to move in the right direction with multimedia infographics?

    A: Understand that to obtain profits, you have to invest in training, equipment, innovation and good staff. Cutting expenses might be good in the short term, but it will hurt quality in the long term. The quantitative evidence suggests that publications that increase quality and focus more on stories the readers care about (not necessarily local stories) don’t lose readership – or they lose it in such a slow, steady pace that it will give them time to become completely online. Innovation is crucial in this equation: create new ways to convey information.

    If you want to survive in the current environment, you have to attract online readers by offering them content presented in ways they will not be able to find anywhere else. Any citizen journalist can present information using words or pictures. It is much more difficult to find good user-generated multimedia or infographics content. Engage your readers by offering them breaking-news, accurate and spectacular infographics presentations. My experience in events such as the March 11th 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid tells me that readers really appreciate the efforts.

    Graphic’ March 11 graphic got millions of page views in just a few days.

    Other breaking-news presentations at did not generate so many visits, but they were extremely successful in other ways. In some cases, they were local breaking-news stories. Again, any newspaper can do an infographic on the latest NASA mission, but only a few can do a sophisticated online presentation on the state-of-the art steel bridge that is being built right next door. You have to find the right balance between global and local. Never forget one of them because you’re focusing too much on the other.

    Q: Who has influenced you most as a professional?

    A: The people I’ve worked with: the folks at La Voz de Galicia, Spain, who accepted me as an intern. My partners at Diario16, DPI Comunicacion and, of course.

    After that, almost anything I read or see influences me. I am like a sponge. My own students have a huge influence on the way I think about infographics, too, especially those that participate in our multimedia documentary projects. When they participate in those projects they are usually a few months away from graduation and cannot be considered mere undergraduates anymore. They are professionals ready to get an entry-level job as infographics journalists – and to surprise you with their creativity.

  • About Laura Ruel

    Laura Ruel is an assistant professor in visual communication and multimedia production in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    Before coming to UNC, Laura was the inaugural executive director of the Edward W. Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media at the University of Denver. She also taught journalism classes in the department of Mass Communications and Journalism Studies at DU.

    Prior to joining the academic world in Fall of 2000, she worked for more than 15 years in the journalism industry as a reporter, editor, designer and manager at a number of newspapers and magazines including the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Omaha World-Herald and the Denver Rocky Mountain News.