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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Inventing Infographics: Visual Literacy Meets Written Content

Brett Vogelsinger

Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA

I'll admit it. In my early years as a teacher, I thought that encouraging students to improve their writing invariably involved encouraging greater depth, adding more detail, crafting more complex sentences. In short, I implied to my students that the most valuable revisions involved adding to our work and that writing better equaled writing longer.

Enter the infographic, the twenty-first century text/structure/genre/design that blows my earlier beliefs about "better = longer" right out of the water.

As texts compete for attention with soundbites, scrolling headlines, tweets, and vines, writers and readers alike are seeing the value of text that uses visual design features to organize ideas, provide background, and emphasize key facts in ways that make it easier for readers to engage a topic thoughtfully. I have always encouraged my student writers to "swim deeply" when they read and write, moving beyond the basics, braving the imposing waters at the "deep end of the pool." Reading and writing infographics is like cannonballing into ten feet of water -- you splash in deeper and more quickly.

I knew that this year I wanted to have students experiment in creating their own infographics, so I made an early decision to build infographics into our Article of the Week routine (inspired by Kelly Gallagher). I occasionally substituted an infographic or two instead of the news articles or essays they were accustomed to reading. Of course, the reaction was positive. The first thing students noticed was the substantial time savings in reading an infographic or two versus a traditional article. It was like asking them to read Animal Farm after completing Great Expectations -- there was an immediate “can do” reaction.

Getting to Know Infographics

The key to creating infographics is understanding that the finished product looks deceptively simple. Every decision, including font, shapes, color scheme, and use of white space, will either contribute to or detract from the overall clarity of the message in the finished infographic. This makes them particularly good for helping students to swim deeply.

So after a few exposures to basic infographics, we studied three very different infographics side by side. Using the website Daily Infographic or just a Google Image search for the word "infographic" will help you find three that work for your class. This year, we combined these three in an Article of the Week reading assignment:

We discussed the following:

  • Which of these was the best infographic and why?
  • How does the writer try to engage an audience, even an audience who may not initially care about the topic?
  • Is the text or the visual design most important in each of these? How does the use of color and white space affect your ability to focus on the main message of the infographic? How is font size used to emphasize certain facts?
  • Does the infographic make a claim or develop an argument? If so, how can you tell?

The question of "best" was intriguing. Each infographic had supporters, and often the reasons had more to do with the design and how it delivered the message than with the student's intrinsic interest in the topic. This is important to note with students preparing to create their own infographics. Just like any other sort of writing, how you convey your message is just as important as why you are creating the message.

Experiments in a New Medium

Soon after reading and discussing published infographics, we created quick sketches in our Writer's Notebooks using infographic techniques. The challenge: show us something about one of the main characters in The Book Thief using a simple infographic instead of a paragraph. The results shown below demonstrate that through use of white space, size and proportion, simple language and limited text, students were able to meet the challenge.

Student infographics for The Book Thief.

Of course, these initial efforts look more like traditional graphic organizers than the keen, svelte creations we find online or in Time. So our next step was to create something truer to the form. The Web is filled with tools to create infographics, but for my students' first exposure to creating their own, I employed a PowerPoint template that I found on Beth Kanter's blog.

For those teachers who would argue that PowerPoint is an overused tool and not particularly well-adapted to creating infographics, I would agree. However, considering that students had only a little exposure to the genre and that I had slim experience teaching it, using a comfortable tool and employing it for new purposes made sense. A selection of templates helped us to do that.

Statistics about school suspensions.

At the end of a research project about Supreme Court cases that have influenced the rights of teenagers, students prepared an infographic using multiple sources of information cited in a Works Cited Page and one template from the collection linked above. The example to the left shows current suspension statistics after Goss v. Lopez established a student's right to a hearing prior to a suspension.

Welcome to Philly!

While templates helped us dabble in infographic creation, it wasn't until we actually had to transform information from article form to infographic form that we faced the complexities of infographics from scratch.

I live and teach in suburban Philadelphia, so my students have visited Philly many times for sports and cultural events, field trips, etc. After reading our Article of the Week entitled "50 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Philadelphia," I challenged them to create an infographic from scratch that used text, color, and design to highlight several of the facts that would be most likely to attract tourists. Notice that while we were basically reshaping the information in the article, it was important to introduce a target audience and purpose at this point. After all, a key to good revision is knowing what to remove -- in this case, the facts that would be irrelevant to potential tourists. Here are examples of what my students created:

As a class, we critiqued the work onscreen. Was the infographic easy to understand on the first read? Did fonts and simple icons help to meet this objective? Was there a "flow" to information, or was it cluttered? Did the facts chosen work well given our purpose of attracting tourists to Philadelphia?

In the upcoming school year, I look forward to engaging with this type of text further and investigating the many online resources for creating infographics. I had one student use Piktochart to create the Philadelphia tourist assignment, and she found the website user-friendly. A colleague recommended easel.ly as a useful website that helps students create professional infographics when a class is ready to move beyond PowerPoint. And of course Prezi provides an easy means of creating interactive infographics with plentiful templates and a zooming canvas that never fails to impress.

Picture This

If you're considering diving into this 21st century text with students, the process is simple. Start by reading and discussing several. Don't just discuss content, but purpose, design, and organization. Sketch and experiment in a Writer's Notebook. Try starting with a template when students create their first infographic, then try another with an empty canvas to challenge them further. Don't forget to establish purpose and audience to help trim the content that will be included. And don't worry if you're not the greatest tech guru in the school -- the elements of strong infographics are as accessible as Power Point. Most importantly, you have the opportunity to explore a new type of reading and writing with your students, learning together, side by side.

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Brett Vogelsinger

Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
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Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
Blogger

Jim, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post!
Yes, we did export from PowerPoint as jpg files. It's very simple under the "Save As" list; just pick "JPG Interchange format"
Also, the templates that I found online and reference in the post taught me that you can change the size of a PPT slide, which means you can create infographics in a variety of shapes and sizes. Just be sure to choose a scale that fits the finished slide to one page when you go to print.

I'll be writing a follow-up piece on NYTimes Learning Network about how we worked as a class with a NYTimes article and a template I created to interpret an article into an info graphic. I'll post the link when it's published in late August.

(2)
Jim Bentley's picture
Jim Bentley
6th grade teacher, Elk Grove, CA

Okay. So I started building my own info graphic using food waste information-something my class and I have been reading about a fair amount after reading the post.

I'm realizing that there are some serious lead-up steps to creating an info graphic. The amount of what you could say and how you could say it is overwhelming. Couple that with using The Noun Project (http://thenounproject.com) to get cool vector graphics (png images mostly) that can upload into an easel.ly project...wow.

I like the deep discussion questions you mentioned. I see a need for an intermediate step...to get something on paper, to get ideas crystalizing around images and facts and information that could be shared. What would you suggest to start?
Anybody?
Anybody?
Bueller?

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center
Facilitator

@Brett - thank you so much for sharing your step by step process for learning how to create Infographic's! And to everyone else, thanks for sharing your students' work and your additional ideas. I have been thinking about how to have my French students create infographics as well, not traditional language things like verb charts (OMG!), but posters to promote informed ecotourism, to raise awareness about environmental issues, or tips for cross-cultural situations. I will be adapting your approach to engage my students in some serious digital work this coming school year!

As for Jim's questions... Looks like Bueller is absent again - he must not be very engaged in his own learning. HA! But more to the point, I wonder if students could work in teams of 3-4, brainstorm ideas, post them on chart paper, and then have the opportunity for feedback and revision with the help of others in the class? I have done a gallery walk approach to this - each student gets some post-its and writes down comments beginning with "I like..." or "I wonder..." to affirm and to provide other ideas to explore. This approach has helped my students a great deal. It is not a new idea, but it works well. What do you think?

I will tweet this out, and invite others to contribute to the conversation. I bet there are lots of other ideas out there.

Best wishes,
Don

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Professor of English composition and literature

Brett, this is such a great post. I often see myself as a visual learner and able to recall things easier when they were presented through a visual. I really like how you not only focus on content, but purpose, design and organization. These aspects are so important in many disciplines and help students and learners organize their thoughts and ideas keeping in mind that design is so important in delivering the message.

@Jim I find the site that Brett mentioned Daily Infographics is also very helpful, but yes the PPT idea is great and so useful!

Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
Blogger

Thanks, Rusul! I just established contact with a local design firm who found my post, and they provided me with a bounty of articles to read about infographics from a design perspective, and a colleague sent me this link http://news.gestalten.com/news/juan-velasco-talks-infographics with an interview of an infographic designer for National Geographic. This genre has me learning alongside the kids!

Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
Blogger

Don, I love your gallery approach. I've used it before and I think it would work well for infographic design work!

Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
Blogger

Hi Jim! For me, the intermediate step would be in the Writer's Notebook as they get a basic "big picture" look in order for the infographic. However, it can also be interesting to preselect some images that might work well together, give them to kids, and have them evaluate which ones to keep and which ones to ditch. I'm writing about this in another article that will be published late August . . . I'll tweet you the link. We created one as a whole class, which helped kids develop better independent ideas later for other projects.

Nico's picture

A really great article. It's important to cater for visual learners in education. We actually created a tool that helps you do this that's just being released. It's called Youzign. You can have a look at it here: http://youzign.com. Any feedback on how we can improve it to make it even better would be greatly appreciated.

Jim Bentley's picture
Jim Bentley
6th grade teacher, Elk Grove, CA

LOVE the information in this post! I hadn't thought of Power Point as a possible template. I've seen a lot of info graphics done in Photoshop...but it's expensive and a STEEP learning curve for both teachers and adults. Do you export from Power Point as a jpg? I see in Keynote 5.3 the ability to export as a PDF, but not an image file. Thanks for the post!

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Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
Blogger

Andrea, I love this! I open the year with my ninth graders writing an "Autobiography of a Reader" assignment, and this project is in the same vein. You have me wondering about whether to integrate an infographic into our work on our reading autobiographies this year.

(1)
Brett Vogelsinger's picture
Brett Vogelsinger
Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
Blogger

Jim, I'm so glad you enjoyed the post!
Yes, we did export from PowerPoint as jpg files. It's very simple under the "Save As" list; just pick "JPG Interchange format"
Also, the templates that I found online and reference in the post taught me that you can change the size of a PPT slide, which means you can create infographics in a variety of shapes and sizes. Just be sure to choose a scale that fits the finished slide to one page when you go to print.

I'll be writing a follow-up piece on NYTimes Learning Network about how we worked as a class with a NYTimes article and a template I created to interpret an article into an info graphic. I'll post the link when it's published in late August.

(2)
Dr. Stephanie Hatten's picture
Dr. Stephanie Hatten
District Technology Specialist, Narrative Researcher, Mom of 4 teenagers,

I love the potential of this project and so glad you wrote about this! We are adding infographics as projects to our curriculum this year for all levels and I am so excited. This is a great opportunity for our students to learn to design, be creative , and really have to have a great understanding of the material. I have been practicing this summer with Piktochart and I want to use this with our students so I will be training teachers and tech specs in August. In this training we will be creating infographics about ourselves and sharing them (and now I can use this article so thanks). I have also made some infographics for their other trainings so they get used to reading them. We are thinking now of printing some inst tech ones to place in computer labs as samples as well. If anyone has any they want to share I would be grateful. Here is my sample: https://magic.piktochart.com/output/2234969-stephanie-hatten

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