Infographics in public health
The rise in popularity of using infographics in public health is quite evident and noticeable. However, summarizing key information in a visual format is not a new concept for public health. Visualization of information has been seen as far back as the 19th century in a number of important work including Florence Nightingale’s ‘Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East’ (1858) and John Snow’s “Broad Street Cholera Outbreak” (1854).
More recently, public health organizations like the Public Health Agency of Canada, the US Centre for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the European Centre Disease Control have started using infographics to summarize reports or communicate findings with their stakeholders. Beyond global and national organizations, local ones too are incorporating it in their work: Southwestern Public Health, Ottawa Public Health, and Denver Public Health are some examples.
And beyond government agencies (as well as a number of private companies), journals and academia are also investing in infographics for public health communication.
The British Medical Journal and the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice are two examples of journals dedicating space on their websites to summarize articles in infographic formats. More and more, journals are adopting this form of communication because “…readers, are increasingly time-pressured, so [infographics] aim…to include some carefully selected information from an article, highlighting the key messages”.
Infographic design is even being taught as part of certain curriculums, acknowledging that contemporary higher education requires the integration of new tools to facilitate teaching and learning. One specific example of this comes from Portland State University where undergraduate students were taught to visualize and communicate public health data using infographics, followed by a group assignment requiring students “…to create an infographic focused on a health issue. The objectives of the assignment were to (1) understand the purposes of and potential uses for infographics, (2) cultivate creative visual communication skills, and (3) disseminate information about a complex health topic to diverse audiences” (Shanks et al., 2017).
I have even been invited (for two years now), as a guest speaker for an “Advanced Physical Activity and Health” course at Queen’s University’s Kinesiology and Health Studies faculty. My talk provided students with an introduction to infographics and infographic design before they embarked on an assignment to create an infographic related to topics they were researching on for a term assignment (i.e. the relationship between physical activity and breast cancer, physical activity and cardiovascular disease, and physical activity and type 2 diabetes). I was pleasantly surprised and happy that Dr. Robert Ross’s curriculum integrated hands-on skills that students could really leverage when they are out in the “real world”.
Infographics can be a powerful tool to communicate research findings, educate populations, or share information with stakeholders in a concise and effective manner. In recent years, public health has seen increasing interest and popularity for displaying information using infographics. The caveat to all of this great stuff is that infographics have not yet been validated in a public health context, for decision making or influencing behaviour change. However, it’s certainly showing to be a promising communication tool.
Infographics (/ˌinfōˈɡrafik/ | noun.) are the visualization of data or ideas. Through infographics, you are trying to convey complex information to an audience in a manner that can be quickly consumed and easily understood.
The process of developing and publishing infographics is “data visualization”, “information design”, or “information architecture”. It is the detailed planning of specific information that is to be provided to a particular audience to meet specific objectives. The goal of information design is to help humans process information as efficiently as possible.
Infographic design requires the use of a number of concepts including psychology, data science, and graphic design, but that’s not to say that only specialists in those areas can design them.
Not yet systematically evaluated, but still useful (and being used in public health)
Infographics are popular and useful because they are products that are visual. Thanks to modern-day technology and applications, our attention spans are one reason we are attracted to visuals such as infographics where we can consume information much more quickly.
Let’s take the COVID-19 pandemic. Ask yourself these questions:
How many infographics have I seen on various topics around COVID-19?
How many of them have been shared on social media?
How does this compare with technical reports developed around COVID-19 or research papers?
Anecdotally, we have seen during this pandemic that communicating at such a large scale (to populations with various backgrounds) has required multiple forms of media, and visuals have been extremely helpful.
Aside from communicating about a novel virus, other applications for infographics in public health have included patient package inserts for prescription drugs and language-tailored Zika Virus communication in Kashmir, India.
Though infographics have been adopted by the public health field, and it’s effectiveness have been seen, a systematic evaluation is warranted (and would be kind of cool to see!).
Public health professionals should have excellent communication skills, including infographic design (no they don’t replace graphic designers)
As public health professionals, a large part of our work is communicating to various audiences – decision-makers, the general public, non-public health leaders, etc.
Communication comes in various forms, such as written, oral, and visual. The visual component is one that is not a popular area of training in public health, but it is one that I strongly believe should be, especially infographic design.
Having the knowledge and skill to take public health information and convert it into an infographic requires content expertise and a deep understanding of the population that is being served/targetted. It is also a skill that should be given importance. Firing up a software application like Adobe Creative Suites, and putting down great pictures and choosing a nice colour palette is only one part of infographic design. And the truth is, with the availability of amazing web-based applications, public health professionals don’t need to be excellent graphic designers. However, they should know how to take complicated information, boil it down to an audience/population of interest, and present it in a format that is easily consumable. The skills can be taught, and we are in an era where the tools are accessible.
Large organizations may have marketing or communication teams that can help with the execution (i.e. graphic design) of the infographic. That’s a bonus! They can be included towards the end of the process. A public health expert will always need to lead an infographic design project. They are the experts who will need to develop the objective, identify and understand the audience, develop the story, write out the copy (including the call to action), and figure out the look and feel of the product. The graphic designer will simply execute on your plan.
So, what’s my point…
Basically it’s this.
There’s a lot of misinformation around health out there in the world. Websites, articles, and visuals communicate the wrong information to people we care deeply about. Most of these products are probably created by non-public health professionals. And are so popular because they are visually appealing.
On the other hand, public health professionals like us do some really excellent work, but at times, they don’t see the day of light.
By equipping public health professionals with communication skills, such as how to design great infographics, we will be better equipped to effectively share good public health information with the world.
I believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that public health information is displayed and communicated accurately. If we can’t get rid of the bad information out there, we should saturate it with good information.
Would you agree?
(And if you are ready to take the next step, check out the 6-day infographic planning challenge below.)