Infographics, an Interview with Brandon Rossen
Interviewer: Tim Martin, November 2014. Episode #24 from the NET:101 podcast.
TIM: Welcome to the show. I have with me today Brandon Rossen, who is the Creative Director of Hot Butter Studio based here in Melbourne. Hello, Brandon.
BRANDON: How you doing?
TIM: Good, good. Now, you guys do a few things, but you are specialists in infographics, yeah?
BRANDON: We like to think we are. For several years now, we’ve been primarily looking at ourselves as infographics and content marketing.
TIM: When did you do your first infographic?
BRANDON: The first infographic we did was actually for – it was a magazine called Good Magazine, and they actually had a big essentially infographic competition. We created our first one to enter into that competition. I believe it was right at the site of – if you remember the whole movement for the 99%, it was for essentially the income inequality, particularly in America, but I think it’s going to a global audience at this point.
TIM: So they would’ve been I guess relatively early days. I mean, they’re fairly common or popular now, but back then they wouldn’t have been.
BRANDON: If I could show it to you, you’d be very surprised. It looks nothing like the modern infographic you’re probably very used to seeing. It was an early effort on our part, and I think we touched upon some really interesting parts.
I think we’re still true to the roots that we used, even in that initial infographic or trying to hit on points that are informational, but also trying to find a way to communicate something that’s a little bit more interesting and engaging and maybe helps you see the whole picture, but probably in a different way than you might have.
Essentially what we did in that infographic, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, is based on the whole 99% thing and the money inequality in America. We pretty much broke down the whole amount of money that was available in the American economy and then showed how much of that money could be dispersed to every person if it was done equally.
It really showed that where some people have billions and billions of dollars, if all the money was put in a pile and everyone had an equal amount of that money, it was only about $50,000, if I remember correct, for everyone to have. Which I thought was a really interesting way – so if you’re like, “Man, I’m making $300,000; that means somebody is going to get well below their $50,000.” Which isn’t very much money.
TIM: That’s a great example of concrete, and taking data or taking a nebulous concept and putting visual elements around it that tell the story, literally within 30 seconds, yeah?
BRANDON: Absolutely. That’s really what I think infographics are. That’s the power of infographics. Because I feel like especially now, you’re bombarded with numbers and data and articles, especially people like you and I, and I imagine there’s people who are involved on Twitter and any kind of social media. The amount of content available is just staggering.
To get anything through, I feel like the faster you do it and the easier it is for people to get it, the higher your likelihood of actually getting people to look and pay attention.
TIM: They also have the advantage that people’s eyes are drawn to visuals and that we process information more readily through visuals than we do text.
BRANDON: Oh, absolutely. I don’t have the statistics in front of me; I actually saw – we didn’t do it, but an infographic actually on that subject. It was something to the extent of I think 5 to 6 or maybe even 10 times faster. If you see it, you recognize it and internalize it much faster than you would have if you read it. And I agree with that, again. Couldn’t be more true.
TIM: Yeah. Let’s go back to basics: what is an infographic? Because I know everyone’s got their own idea of them, and you would recognize one if you saw one, but they’re a whole different sorts of infographics out there. Can you run us through the top level categories?
BRANDON: The way that we generally look at them, the first two classifications – if someone is coming to us today and say “We want an infographic,” the first question I normally ask is, “Are you trying to use it internally or externally?” I think that’s a massive – it’s probably the most important part when you start even considering making an infographic; that’s the biggest consideration.
Frequently people leave that side of it out. They just think of infographics as “Ooh, I’ve seen something really pretty and I want to do something really pretty.” While infographics should be pretty, and certainly being aesthetically pleasing is important, I like to think the content comes first. Knowing your audience and knowing who you want to see it is far more valuable than making it aesthetically interesting.
TIM: Internal audiences. So rather than distributing a memo or a report for everybody to read, to actually put it within an infographic? Is that what you’re saying?
BRANDON: Yeah, certainly, it can be for a range of things. Right now, our bigger clients are especially in the banking community, so while we really like to think of ourselves as a very heavily creative studio – which we are; that’s what I like to do, and I guess it’s any creative person: you want to be able to do something where you can show off your interesting and more creative ideas.
But we found ourselves primarily working in a lot of the financial sectors, and that comes with a few constraints, especially based on the audience in that you’re dealing with bankers. It’s not going to be your outlandish, funny, quirky kind of stuff.
I feel like frequently, you have to understand your audience, understand the kind of information that they’re used to processing and the way that they like to process their information, and then build your thing to suit your audience.
TIM: Okay, so we’ve got that top level delineation, whether it’s for internal consumption, internal stakeholder groups, or external, which I guess is the typical way that most of us would see those pumped out through social media and passed or shared along, that sort of thing.
We’ve got data-driven infographics and conceptual-driven infographics, which obviously don’t have data; they’re just trying to convey general information, yeah?
BRANDON: Absolutely. We actually have – it’s a whole debate internally that a lot of people look at, where it’s the difference between a data visualization and an infographic. We’ve had a couple people comment one of our – essentially our most successful piece we did internally was just a case study for ourselves that we released. It was called “What Is an Infographic?” and we did it based on Legos.
It visually showed essentially how you make an infographic, not in like a design perspective, but just how you get data and then you sort the data and then you present the data. The way that we showed it, there was actually no real data involved; it was just pictures of Legos. It starts off as a big pile of mixed-up Legos, and then it shows the Legos being sorted by color, and then it shows we actually built graphs out of the Legos where you could see that in the pack of Legos, there might’ve been a whole lot of green ones, a few blue ones, a lot more yellow, and a visual representation of what was actually in the box.
TIM: That’s absolutely brilliant. Almost ironically, of the infographics I saw from Hot Butter, that’s probably the most simple yet the most powerful ones.
BRANDON: Exactly. It’s something that we really believe in here, that simplicity is generally more. Obviously you’ve seen that one. There might only be 15 words, maybe three or four sentences on that infographic, so there’s very little in terms to read. It’s four photos and I think four sentences, if I’m remembering it perfectly.
We’ve had an incredible amount of success with it, and it’s had exceptional reach. It’s popped up on Gizmodo, it’s popped up on Mashable, it’s popped up on DesignTAXI. Not to talk ourselves up so much, but we really built a business off of that infographic. That infographic just took off and went, and it generated business for us, and it continues to.
I think that really shows the power of infographics, that we created one piece – it may have taken us, I believe start to finish and the photography side, I think we might’ve spent roughly I’ll say a week on it, that we turned that whole thing around in a week. And 2, 3 years later, it is still out on the internet. People are contacting us because they’ve seen it. In terms of a marketing effort, that is an incredible return on investment for us.
TIM: Good example of a conceptual infographic, because that didn’t have any data on it, did it?
BRANDON: No, literally there was no numbers, no data. It was purely conceptual, exactly.
TIM: With these data-driven infographics, I’ve tried to do a few myself. I’ve got a graphic designer that I use in the Philippines, and he’s very, very capable. I tried to do a data-driven infographic, and it looked just like a piece of crap. (laughs)
It’s one of those things that it looks quite simple – you look at an infographic, you think “I could put one of those together,” but it’s not simple at all, is it?
BRANDON: I look at it a lot like – I think this is a good example, and I think a lot of people have already gone through this stage, but I look at it a lot like having websites built. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of really, really great websites, and I’m sure everyone’s seen a lot of less than stellar examples of a website. You go to a website and you’re like “Oh man, I don’t really know what happened here, but it’s just a nightmare.”
I think infographics can be a similar thing. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why some work and some don’t work, but we just try to do it – the ethos that we have at Hot Butter Studio is we really try to find the data and find the interesting parts of the data.
It can be tricky working with clients on this, because again, we work with a lot of financial institutions, but a lot of people fall in love with their own data. They’ve collected a lot of this data and they’ve worked really hard to find all their data, and they have a lot of data. And that’s great, because it gives us a lot to work with.
But it can be a real hindrance if you’re so attached to it that you don’t know which part of it is actually the highlight and which part of it might not be so interesting to someone that might not have as much of a vested interest in that data as you do. And that’s something that we frequently deal with. We might get an Excel spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation or what have you, and it’s just pages and pages and pages of data.
Ideally, we find you don’t really need that. The data’s great, and it’s great for your company, and if people want more to find later, infographics are great to maybe whet their appetite and get them to want to learn a little bit more. But on that first infographic, find out the really compelling parts of that infographic, and then show people that. Show them something that they don’t know.
For me, if you can teach somebody something or if you can make them laugh, then you’ve really succeeded, and you’re really going to up your chances of maybe getting them to share it, or if you’re trying to use it as essentially a click-baiting thing of getting them to click and maybe trying to find out a little bit more about it.
But just recently we were working with actually a plausible campaign, and it was with Foster Care Victoria. Foster Care Victoria had quite a bit of data, and some of it’s very, very compelling data, and then some of it was – one of their data points – I apologize, because I don’t actually know the specific one, but it was somewhere in the realm of 1 in 5,000 children are in care or have received some care. For them, that was important to them, and they really wanted that in the infographic.
For us, 1 in 5,000, visually speaking, looks very small. It’s a very small, small, small number. So we actually were trying to figure out ways to highlight some of the other more compelling data points that they had. We found it a very difficult way to make 1 in 5,000 seem like a lot. Because if you put it as a percentage, if you put it as a bar graph – every way that we were looking at it, it just made it look like it countered what they were saying. Obviously their argument was 1 in 5,000 is a lot, but when you look at that statistic visually, it makes it seem like just about everybody isn’t in foster care. Charts like that can be difficult.
That’s why I say you have to have your data, and then I think it’s also important to understand which of your points are going to be the most compelling points, and then really trying to highlight those.
TIM: As you were talking then, I just couldn’t help think of traditional storytelling, which has a narrative arc. You basically start at the start and you work your way through, and there’s a finish. Because the way that we read a book or a webpage or an infographic is your eye will start at the top left, and you’re going to work your way down and come to the endpoint. I guess part of the task of a good infographic is to tell a decent story.
BRANDON: Absolutely. I think having a narrative on an infographic is very important. It’s been an odd trend, especially recently, to have – I look at them as kind of like puzzle pieces, but they end up looking – and maybe you’ve seen one, but essentially an infographic where instead of having narratives, it’s quite literally interesting points that are I guess connected thematically, but they’re not really connected in terms of one point to the next point. In some cases, a narrative isn’t possible.
In the end, what we do is if our clients come to us with data and they really need something done, then there’s always a solution to be found for it. But personally, my belief is if you tell a story, people can identify with a story and a story makes sense. If I could advise you on what was best, I would advise you to tell a narrative. Have a story. It almost always goes further. And as a piece of collateral, it’s far more useful.
The way these other ones work where you generally just have really interesting facts, personally, if they’re going to be shared, the facts have to just be astounding facts.
TIM: Makes me think this is the trap I fell into. I’ve created a couple of infographics, and I want to say that 97% of people that come to my course are wearing shoes, and I’ve got 100 little guys lined up and 97 of them are solid and 3 of them are white, and that’s my data. But who cares, right?
BRANDON: I think you can do something interesting there, but it has to be something that works for your audience. But I don’t think that in itself is necessarily uninteresting data. But you tell me, why do you think it didn’t work for you?
TIM: Well, in saying that, I did throw some data sets out that I just thought were humorous. The number of people that sit in the same seat on the second day, the number of people that eat the mints on the table, the percentage of people that will laugh within the first 1 hour of the course starting. I actually think that resonated, but that’s because I tried to put a bit of humor around the data.
BRANDON: Yep. For us, that is bar none, I think, one of the most effective things you can do in an infographic. If Lolcats or any kind of internet memes have taught anybody anything, it’s that if something’s funny, people will forgive any other aspect of it.
And I’m not saying that there’s anything to forgive, necessarily, but if maybe your content’s not necessarily there, or even the design’s not quite there, if you nail something that’s really funny or really clever, it’ll still work. That for me – it’s a very incredible power. If you can do them both, then you’re [inaudible 00:18:27].
But for us, we try to look at it as the content and what you’re giving, if it’s really good and if it’s really well thought out, and you’re thinking about who’s looking at it and what they want, and you can give them something, then it’ll work. And that’s what we try to do.
That’s really essentially the whole basis of content marketing, and it’s really just the idea of thinking about your customers or your audience. I think of it as customers, but your customers, your audience, or your demographic. Looking at them first. Thinking about what they want and what you want them to do, and then designing something that makes it easy on them to do that.
Actually, I find that to be one of the biggest things that people – they don’t stop to think about that, and they think of it more as “Here’s what we want people to know and what we want them to do.” But unfortunately, people don’t really operate that way. And more and more, I think that’s becoming an ineffective means of communicating with your audience.
TIM: And I guess the role of a studio such as yours is not just the graphic element, making something look pretty; it’s actually, as you say, teasing out the angles, if there’s a narrative or how to put a bit of spark or life into a set of data. I mean, maybe even the graphic element is the easiest part of the process.
BRANDON: Yeah, it certainly can be. Every client that we’ve ever worked with has been different, and we’ve had clients where the data that we’ve chosen to highlight, they haven’t been pleased with that and we end up reworking the data. We’ve had some where they wanted us to rework the creative.
Let’s say you’re a photography company. You’ve made a really interesting advancement in photography, and you want everyone to realize how great this new thing is. But in actuality, the only people that might really be interested in this – it might really only come into play for a professional photographer. And if you’re marketing it to everybody, if that comes up on my mom’s Facebook feed, she’ snot going to understand. It’s not going to mean anything to her.
And if that’s what you want – if you want when my mom sees it or when your mom sees it or when your uncle or everyone, you just want everyone that sees it to share it, then I feel like you may have missed your mark in terms of thinking about the content. You’re thinking about your content first instead of thinking of your audience first. I think the audience always has to be first.
TIM: Yeah, completely. I think that holds true for any facet of social media. Audience is always number one. You mentioned link baiting; is that still a thing? Are people still producing infographics for the sole reason of getting people to click back to their website?
BRANDON: I think that’s going to be a hard thing to remove from infographics, especially with – we call it micro-content, but it’s essentially a very small infographic. They’re starting to pop up more and more. I see them in Twitter feeds and Instagram kind of situations, or even on LinkedIn. Someone will post an article and have a little picture that accompanies it.
I don’t see it changing anytime soon, and I think they’re very effective. If you put up something there, if it’s interesting, the chances of someone actually clicking it, having a look at the article that it coincides with, just goes up.
So as for link baiting, yeah, I don’t think that’s going away anytime soon. I think there’s more to it than that; I think just thinking of them as link bait is a very narrow idea of what you can achieve with an infographic. But they certainly are effective at link baiting.
TIM: Brandon, are you able to give the listeners some indication of costs? I know it’s a little like asking how long is a piece of string, but what are some of the base level costs an organization could expect to pay to get an infographic produced?
BRANDON: First, it depends on what color this thing is.
TIM: (laughs) Good answer.
BRANDON: (laughs) But for us, we have a pricing model; it generally starts off on three sizes, which is essentially – it sounds funny to say it in digital terms, but like an 8x5 piece of paper, than an 8x3, 8x3 plus sized piece of paper. And then the next size up is called an Extra Large infographic.
The small ones, like an 8x5, you can get quite a bit of information on there. They generally start off at about $1200, and it usually includes a couple revisions, a wireframe and a mockup. So it’s not just the infographic. We walk you through it, we design it with you and make sure that everything’s looking the way that you want it to, and then prices elevate.
Essentially after you have a wireframe, you have your concept, and you have your full mockup and then a couple little tweaks, and then after those couple tweaks, if you continue to want – maybe you want to work on it a little bit more of you want to change things up a little bit, then there’s two additional costs. It just goes to an hourly rate after that. But 98% of our clients, we get them done for that $1200 mark.
Your larger, more standardized kind of infographic that you’re probably most used to seeing, those start off at about $2200. And then our extra large, which is – essentially we can make an infographic as large as – if you have the data, we’re happy to make an infographic as large as you want it to be. We price those out based on how much information you guys give to us and how much of that actual information you want into the infographic.
TIM: Okay, that seems quite straightforward. And those indicative pricings would include the brief understanding of what the storyline is, the target audience, and you would help the client tease out those angles?
BRANDON: Yeah, absolutely. Generally once someone contacts us – and it kind of depends on each client, because everybody – I know I’ve said that a couple times, but everybody really is different. It’s not uncommon for us to get a very clear and concise brief where it’s already been discussed internally and our client knows, to a pretty high degree, the rough idea of what they want.
And then occasionally we have clients that come to us with they want an infographic, but they’re not quite sure of the angle, they’re not quite sure aesthetically. They have an idea for the infographic, but that’s the whole thing.
In those situations, we have a bit of a questionnaire that we usually run through with the clients and talk you through who is it for, what do you want to use it for, what are you planning on doing with it – really what are your goals for the piece. And then from there, we build it out with you. But yeah, that’s all part of the service.
TIM: Excellent. Look, a parting question for you, and I haven’t prepped you on this one, but what are the one or two things maybe that really annoy you when you look at infographics generally?
BRANDON: That’s a good question. As infographics have become popular – and I think this is with anything – something that starts off meaningful, say like an infographic is created purposefully – and obviously we try that our infographics, if we’re going to make an infographic that makes sense, to make an infographic about the topic at hand.
I think there’s a really silly thing going on recently where I’m seeing a lot of infographics about things that actually don’t really seem relevant to an infographic, if that makes sense to you. It’s almost – it’s pretty on the nose that someone made this to make an infographic, like the infographic came before everything else. “Here’s the idea: we’re going to make an infographic. Second idea, find some stuff to shove into this thing to make it an infographic.”
TIM: Brandon, thank you so much. I’m going to go back and take another look at my infographics now and probably wince after all the things you just said there. I think I’m guilty of wanting to produce an infographic but not having a valid reason as to why beyond the infographic itself. So there you go.
BRANDON: Oh, hope I didn’t put my foot in it there. (laughs)
TIM: No, no, no, it’s the harsh reality news that I had to hear. Let people know where they can find you.
BRANDON: You can find us on Twitter @hotbutterstudio, and you can find me personally @brandonrossen. Then you can find us online at www.hotbutterstudio.com. We’re really active on Twitter; send us a tweet. We’d love to hear from you.
TIM: That’s great, Brandon. Looking forward to catching up with you shortly.
BRANDON: Tjhank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.
TIM: Okay, talk soon. Ciao.