How do I design my graphics?

by Manshu on April 28, 2011

in Opinion

This is another post from the Suggest a Topic page, and in this post I’m going to explore how I create the graphics in my posts.

A lot of you have complimented me for these graphics so I think there is a fair amount of interest in them, and although I don’t do anything fancy, there are a few techniques that I follow which I’ll share today.

Why should you make graphics?

If you do any (and I mean any) sort of writing in your profession then you need to consider graphics. They don’t have to be fancy, but they need to be there. It will improve your effectiveness tremendously.

I remember in my second year of college one of my theory professors asked us to make small diagrams as part of our answers.

They were really simple things – she said if you have four points then draw four circles somewhere in the middle of the answer and write the title of the points in the circle or make a pyramid and write your points in there.

When we asked her why? She said so the examiner reads your paper.

That really hit me. It’s a well known fact that students write gazillions of pages worth of content in their theory papers, and I don’t think anyone seriously expects examiners to read all that. If you make a picture then it makes you stand out from the rest of the crowd and makes your life a lot easier.

Following that advice helped my marks and I’ve been looking at sneaking in visual aid wherever I can from that time.

So, if you’re writing documents that are 5 or 6 pages long, see if you can sneak in an image or two and you will be surprised by the response.

This is especially true if you’re not expected to have any images in the document.

That said, let’s look at the tools I use.

Tools

There are four things that I mainly use.

1. Keynote: This is the Mac equivalent of Powerpoint, and is an excellent program for making presentations, graphs, charts etc.

2. GIMP: This is an open source equivalent of Photoshop and is a really powerful tool.

3. MS Powerpoint: I haven’t used it so much for my blog but I do use it extensively otherwise.

4. MS Excel: Anyone seriously working with numbers has to use Excel and it’s obviously a great resource.

So, as you see only Keynote is something that a lot of people don’t have access to but other tools are fairly common and anyone can use them.

Even if you don’t have Keynote – Powerpoint has many Themes that you can easily use to create some of the same stuff.

Now, let’s look at the process and some rules that I personally follow. Let me say that I’m no expert in the area of design, and I’m just sharing things that have worked for me in the past.

Design Process

Message

In my mind – the first thing has to be the message that you want to convey. If I’m not clear on what I’m trying to convey then I don’t even think of making a visual of it. The message is really important.

Only when you have a message you will get good ideas on how to represent it.

Like yesterday’s post – I wanted to convey that risk always shadows return and that was the starting point of the graphic.

When I thought of it – I thought it’d be cool if I write “Return” and then give it a shadow, but let the shadow be  “Risk” instead of return.

I tried to write this a few times on a piece of paper, but it didn’t work out, then I tried it on a computer and that didn’t go anywhere. So, then I thought of variations and just played with a piece of paper – finally it occurred to me that you can show it as a reflection and that will be clearer and easier to do.

So after a few revisions I came up with what you see there.

This has always been the case – start with the message, iterate a few times, and eventually you will find something that you like. If you don’t have a message and then start doodling that might be good for your creative juices but as far as I can see – it’s putting the cart before the horse.

Objects

Once you have your message ready – you want to find objects that fit the message.

In yesterday’s post this was just text – but this can be something that has the same connotation as what you’re trying to say.

For example – when I wrote about a large market fall eating into returns I wanted to use something that I could associate with eating and it struck me that Pacman is something that can be used for it.

The minute you think of Pacman you have an image of a round thing eating in front of you, so that’s  what I chose to use.

So, now you have your message and the idea of the object you desire to convey the message with.

Create the object

Most objects are easier to create than you might think. If you look at the Pacman I made that’s just a pie chart (60 – 40, yellow, white) with eyes on it. It took 2 minutes to create.

If you look at this graphic about India – South Africa cricket then I’ve made the bats and balls myself on Powerpoint. The bat is a series of rectangles joined together and the ball is a circle with dashed and straight lines through it.

String it all together

Once you have all the objects you need – string it all together to ensure that everything gels well with each other and the whole doesn’t look like an ugly hotchpotch job.

Get rid of all the junk

In my opinion – less is more as far as graphics are concerned.

If you have a presentation that runs into 20 pages with long sentences, or fancy graphics that take time to understand no one is going to listen to you.

You need to get rid of whatever you can so that the final thing is crisp and somewhat minimal. If your design is busy – people will lose interest fairly quickly.

In yesterday’s graphic the first draft had a border that I got rid of. The two words were written in two different colors that I changed to one,  in the initial draft I had a call out that explained my point with a little bit of text but I got rid of that as well.

I was quite close to getting rid of the title as well, but I thought that it lend itself well to the graphic so I kept it. I did end up reducing its size quite a bit.

So, in my opinion make it as minimal as possible.

Compelling and Unique Proposition

This won’t always happen but ideally your graphic should go well with your post and combined they should offer a compelling and unique perspective on the topic.

The graphic on Sachin’s Centuries and India’s Wins has been by far the most popular graphic here (with 625 FB likes), and as far as I know – no one  has done that research before. It’s unique and compelling – it gives a data driven approach to a popular question  – and that tremendously adds to its appeal.

Conclusion

This is definitely something where the sum is greater than the parts, and when all the elements that I wrote about earlier come together you will get a good graphic. Just one or two of these elements may not have all that big an impact though.

Again, this is only stuff that has worked for me, and I’m sure there are many other ways of making compelling graphics known to pros and amateurs alike  – please share some of your thoughts in the comments!

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