10 Ways to Generate Great Graphics Ideas

By Justin Beegel, MBA, The Infographic World Team

One of the fun things about working with infographics is that there’s no end to the number of topics an infographic can cover. Any topic that interests you probably interests someone in your audience, too. Here are some tips to help you find great graphics ideas.

Read voraciously. Whether you prefer your news in paper form or online, you should make it a habit to at least scan several newspapers per day. Since your interest is in infographics, make sure you’re looking at the papers that do infographics really well — The New York Times, of course, but also USA Today, London’s Guardian, and some regional newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News. National news magazines are publishing fewer infographics these days, but when they do, they’re often terrific. You should also read your local newspaper.

When you read a news story, what sticks out to you as particularly interesting or in need of further investigation? What elements could be shown graphically? What are people talking about, nationally and in your town?

Check out the competition. All those news sources mentioned above are great fonts of inspiration. They’re also your competition, along with a rapidly expanding number of blogs and online news sites. On the Internet, BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post have emerged as some of the most popular publishers of infographics. Add these to your daily reading list.

Not surprisingly, some great blogs have sprung up to showcase some of the good work that’s going on in infographic design. Two worth checking out are Cool Infographics and Daily Infographic. Don’t copy the work; don’t feel like you have to match every awesome graphic that you see.

But take some time to see what the designer may have been thinking as he built his infographic. Do you agree with the perspective he chose? Would you have highlighted some different information? Is his style clean and attractive, or too cluttered? Does the graphic leave you with any unanswered questions? Perhaps those questions are the source of your next great piece.

Gather research wherever you go. Remember that virtually anything can become the topic of a great infographic. If you’re traveling, collect city maps and transit guides. If you’re in a museum, save the floor plans. If you’re putting together a new appliance, keep the user’s guide. You never know what diagrams, charts or maps might be useful in the future.

You can also keep great infographics that you see, whether you’re tearing out paper versions or keeping links in a computer file or a Pinterest board.

Think about things you don’t understand. Never forget the ultimate purpose of an infographic — to make complex material easy to understand. Chances are, if you don’t understand how something works, lots of other people don’t understand it, either.

Some really great graphics answer questions that any ordinary reader might have. How does Google work? Why do I need to buy a new health insurance plan? How can figure skaters spin in the air three times?

Gear up for big events. Some major events, like elections and Olympics, occur every four years. Both of these events are chock-full of possibilities for infographics. If you’re interested in doing political infographics, you might start by researching the websites of the Democratic and Republican parties. You could even get in touch with a local politician, who may have some great resources on elections and current events.

If sports are your thing, you’ll be glad to know that the International Olympic Committee provides an absolute treasure trove of data on its website. You should be able to brainstorm some great graphics ideas as you read through it.

Work like a journalist. For major events like those discussed in #5, organizers plan to work with the media. Months in advance, media-relations or public-relations departments may provide briefings, start rolling out their own publications, and line up interviews. This is a great time for you, as a data journalist, to start making contacts and gathering your own research material.

Journalists typically receive press passes to cover events as they occur. You can certainly ask for a press pass. Writers and photographers will probably receive first priority, but remember that the media landscape is constantly changing. Bloggers are now a frequent presence at media events, and you may be able to make a case that you, as a data journalist, belong there, too.

Being realistic, media-relations people will spend a bit more time and effort with journalists from major newspapers, TV networks, magazines and online news sites. If you’re working independently, or working for a small publication, you may have to deal with some unreturned phone calls. But keep trying — you never know when persistence and politeness will pay off.

And remember — much of the information the bigwigs are getting is publicly available. You should become very well acquainted with the websites run by the organizers of these big events. Information posted in “media” or “press” sections is typically there for the benefit of all.

Anticipate the seasons. The calendar is a predictable source of graphics ideas. Summer is coming . . . how about a graphic showing the record-high temperatures in your state over the past 50 years? Then along comes fall … how about a beautifully illustrated, scientific explanation for why leaves change color? Thinking about winter might spur you to create a graphic comparing the popularity of skiing vs. snowboarding over the past two decades. Then along comes spring … hey, that means baseball is back! Why not break down the mechanics of a fastball pitch for a sports website?

Consider your audience. If you are interested in designing an infographic on the cost of raising a child, put yourself in the shoes of a new parent. Think about what their daily routine is like, and what parts of it cost money. Every diaper, every mashed banana, every adorable little onesie has a price tag. And that’s just one hour in a new parent’s day.

Crowdsource. It may seem like cheating, but ask your friends, peers, family members, neighbors, mechanic — anyone, really — what they’re reading, and what they want to know more about. Great ideas can come from anywhere. 

Continue your education. When newspapers were king, one of their major professional groups was the Society of News Design. SND has been rocked a bit by the damage to the newspaper industry, but it is adapting and staying on top of the new digital landscape.

SND has always included infographics in its scope, and by shining a light on excellence in news design, it can become a great resource for you. Check out their website, read their publications, or attend any of their top-notch conferences, which routinely attract some of the best infographic designers in the world.