Mon May 13 2019

A Guide to Creating an Infographic with Illustrator (1/2)

An Adobe Illustrator CC tutorial

I’ve always loved numbers and playing around with spreadsheets.

For most of my life, this geeky part of me was kept in an entirely separated universe than the one related to graphic design—sigh.

But one day, these isolated universes crashed into one another, as I discovered the mind blowing concepts of information design and data visualization 🤯🎇 (Okay, that analogy might have been a bit too exaggerated…)

Information design is the practice of presenting information in a way that fosters efficient and effective understanding of it.

— says Wikipedia

Ahem… so let’s get started, and learn how to create a simple (yet accurate) infographic! 🚀

Content (Part One)

  1. Choose your topic and get your data
  2. Decide on a message to convey
  3. Sketch some layouts (Optional)
  4. Create your icons
  5. Set up your Illustrator document
  6. Create your first item (a.k.a. country)
  7. Reproduce all items
  8. Differentiate your icons (full vs. transparent)

Step 1: Choose your topic and get your data

This might seem obvious, but the first step is to figure out the topic of your infographic-to-be.

I don’t always have a point to make before creating an infographic. I usually find an interesting set of data first. I then analyze it to determine if there can be a surprising or thought-provoking message derived from it.

One data-source I love using is Eurostat, the official statistics provider of the European Union. It’s a good place to start if you don’t have any idea!

In this tutorial, I’ll be using the Passenger Transport Statistics from Eurostat. Here is a screenshot of the raw data I’ve downloaded from their website.

Step 2: Decide on a message to convey

You now have your data set, and it’s now time to find your message. You can almost always formulate it as a question.

My data set shows the percentage of passenger-kilometres (pkm) by country across three categories of inland-transportation: cars, buses and trains. In English, it shows us how much people used the car, the bus or the train in Europe (between 2007 and 2016).*

Analyzing this data set, I brainstorm the questions that can emerge from it:

  • What is the variation of car / bus / train use in Europe between 2007 and 2016?
  • For one chosen country, what is the trend of car / bus / train use over the years?
  • What are the countries that use the car / bus / train the most in 2016? And the least?

I settle down on the third question, as I would rather compare countries rather than years—clearly not because it’s easier 😬

Step 3 (Optional): Sketch some layouts

At this point, you have your data set and kind of know the message you want to convey.

It’s now time to sketch a few layouts for your infographic. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • What dimensions would you like your infographic to have?
  • How many items do you want to include? (30 countries + the EU)
  • How many categories are there per item? (3 categories: cars, buses, trains)
  • Is there a title? Where does it fit?
  • How about the labels and references?

⚠ Make sure to include the right number of items, so that you can plan how they are all going to fit in your layout. You don’t want to suddenly discover an unexpected item that you’ll have to squeeze in your visual 😨

Step 4: Create your icons

Ready to (finally) get creative? 🎨

It’s time to design your icons! I like illustrating my own icons, but there are tons of existing resources out there that you can use for free. ⚠ Get the vector versions, no raster images!

Noun Project and iconmonstr are two free-icon resources I love. Don’t forget to attribute them in your project!

For my transportation project, I need three icons: a bus, a train and a car.

In my infographic, one depicted icon represents 10% of all inland-transportation. As all three icons are going to have that same value, I show that visually by designing all icons with the same width and height.

Step 5: Set up your Illustrator document

Now let’s get to the real deal… 🕶

In Illustrator, create a new file with the right dimensions for your infographic.

I usually create a layer called Data and copy-paste a screenshot of my data set directly in the document. This avoids having to go back and forth between all the different files when you’ll have to insert your data. I also lock it for good measure 😎

Create a second layer called Original (or whatever you want). This is the layer that will group our entire infographic in shades of grey (or even black and white).

It is only after finishing the infographic that we’ll copy-paste it into another layer and artboard to choose the colors.

Step 6. Create your first item (a.k.a. country)

Create the most extreme example of your item that contains all the possible information to make sure everything fits 📐

In my case, every country item will include the country name, as well as one row for each mean of transportation with its percentage information and up to ten icons.

Here, the most extreme example item would be if the use of each mean of transportation was up to 100%. Yes you’re right Hermione, it’s also impossible. Ten points for Gryffindor! 🦁

I copy-paste my icons and align them all perfectly by using the Align panel (Window > Align). To do so, I select all the objects I want to align and distribute in a row, select Vertical Align Top, followed by Horizontally Distribute Center.

*** Start of note: But… why are you using color!? ***

You may have noticed that less than five minutes before, I was telling you about creating your entire infographic in shades of grey… Do as I say not as I do, right? 😅

Actually, there is a situation where you should group objects by color. If you have a look at the final result of this infographic (at the beginning ⬆), you’ll see that all car icons share the same color. The bus and train icons are similarly grouped by color.

In Step 15—once your infographic is completed—there will be a super cool technique that allows you to convert all objects of the same color into another one. I anticipated this super handy functionality and have created my icons grouped by color, so that I could later convert them more easily.

*** End of note ***

Step 7: Reproduce all items

Copy-paste your first item to reproduce all the other items. Make sure everything is aligned and well-distributed (see Step 6).

Step 8: Differentiate your icons (full vs. transparent)

You now have all your items laid out. It’s time to adjust them to your data.

Spoiler: We want to achieve this result for item #1.

Each icon represents 10% and can be partially filled with color to cover all percentage possibilities (from 0% to 100%). For instance, 82.9% is depicted by eight opaque cars and a 9th car that is partially transparent.

To achieve this transparent effect, duplicate your original icons and change their opacity level to 20-40% in the top Control panel.

Keep these new transparent icons on the side for now. We will use them later in the second part of the process ⌛

Whew, we are done with Part One, congrats! If your brain is tired, I highly recommend taking a break. If not, head over directly to Part 2.

Disclaimer: there will be some calculations 🤓


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