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The Power of Visual Storytelling and Infographics: An Interview with Column Five

column five logoOne of the great parts of my job is that I get to follow just about every creative infographic design firm on the planet in search of the best new graphics on the web. Without a doubt, Column Five is a leader in the field with an amazing output of infographics, illustrations, presentations, motion graphics and other interesting data visualizations that will blow your mind. Hoping to learn more about Column Five’s design process, marketing strategies and past success, I spoke with Ross Crooks, COO and co-founder of Column Five who teaches an information visualization course at Columbia University!

1. Column Five started out as a three-person creative agency. What challenges did you first face as you tried to gain your initial clients?

Before we had a reputation or even much of a track record, it was difficult to get clients to trust our creative recommendations. This required us to gain a deep understanding of each of our clients’ business objectives – so we knew what success looked like for them. Truthfully, I think this is always the challenge, and the approach we still take today.

five columns

 
2. In your book Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling, you say you hold your graphics to high standards when it comes to three areas: utility, soundness and beauty. Tell us more about C5’s workflow for creating graphics that succeed in these areas. How many people are typically involved in the creation of each graphic? What tools and apps are most useful when creating graphics?

We have developed a pretty streamlined workflow that enables us to generate creative concepts and maintain quality on all of our projects. There are typically anywhere from four to 10 people involved in any project, depending on what type of graphic we are creating. Each person plays a different role, from strategy to research to design and development.

We use a lot of different programs – but the main ones are Google Drive for collaboration, Word and Excel for copywriting and data analysis, Adobe Illustrator for final design, After Effects for motion design and some charting libraries like D3 for creating interactive graphics.

Infographics - The Power of Visual Storytelling
 
3. C5 once interviewed Cliff Kuang, the founding editor of Fast Company’s Co.Design, for the company blog. He was asked a really interesting question that we want to turn to you: what should be the number one priority of an infographic designer? Explaining information in the clearest way possible? Finding the best way to bring a story to life?
 
I believe the most fundamental function of data visualization is to provide clarity and insight from complexity. In order to do this, a designer needs to create a visualization that is intuitive and an accurate representation of the information.
 
However, not all graphics contain a lot of data – and there are various objectives for any piece of visual content. Therefore, one may focus more on catching the attention of a specific audience, while another could have the communication of a difficult concept as its main objective. Each of these objectives necessitates a different strategic approach, not only to the creative aspects of the content, but to the way the content will be distributed and interacted with by the audience.

Column Five Content Strategy
 
4. What resources would you suggest to someone looking to learn about and succeed in information design?
 
Nathan Yau at Flowing Data does a great job of making data visualization and some of the basic tools and approaches practical for beginners. Robert Kosara at eagereyes provides some great insight in to the theory of visualization. Our book gives practical advice for the development of strong graphic narratives, to ensure your content tells a story that will achieve your objectives.


 
5. What is the most viral infographic C5 has ever created in terms of shares and views? What do you think set it apart?
 
The most viral content we have ever created was a commercial for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer earlier this year, titled Child of the 90s. It has over 47 million views on YouTube, and it’s still growing. While it is not an infographic, it is a great example of what can be achieved with visual content.
 
Some of our biggest viral infographic hits have garnered around 1 million views and tens of thousands of shares. In each case, viral success is about understanding your audience and tapping into a unique or clever concept that people can connect with but that hasn’t been brought to the mainstream yet.

Child of the 90s - Internet Explorer
 
6. What does it take to manage a successful social media marketing and distribution campaign for an infographic? Do you find that infographics tend to do better on certain social networks or media outlets than others? What metrics do you use to quantify each infographic’s success?
 
We have an in-house digital PR team that helps to craft this distribution strategy for each of our projects. They look at the client’s communication goals and the objectives they are looking to achieve then work with our production team to execute something that can be distributed through the appropriate social media channels and media outlets to hit these goals. It takes strategic thinking, and great, trusting relationships with journalists and influencers.
 
It seems like all social networks are adapting to increasingly visual content, from photos to video to graphics. This makes our job easier, as it provides more channels for distribution. StumbleUpon is a great platform for the distribution of graphics, as the audience really favors visual content. Twitter is inherently less visual due to its short form, but is becoming more so with the new Twitter Cards.
 

 
7. C5 is a big proponent of the future of visual communications. In previous interviews you’ve mentioned that as infographics take on new forms in the future, they will be used to visualize real-time data. What kind of data do you think will be visualized, and in what forms?
 
There are many applications, but I see a lot of opportunity to use this visualization of data for social good. Understanding urgent disaster relief needs or ongoing patterns of crime can lead to quicker, more focused action. I believe this insight will also continue to expand into the realm of economics, hopefully affording us insights previously unseen that will help us avoid or mitigate future hardships.

 
8. What can we expect from Column Five Media going forward?
 
We just opened an office in New York, which will be great for better servicing our clients on the East Coast. We are excited about the opportunity for expansion and growing our existing relationships.
 
Our development team have also been experimenting with new technologies that enable us to parse and visualize much larger and more complex data sets. We are excited about continuing to expand our technical knowledge and abilities to solve challenging problems, visually.
 
As we have grown our engagements with many of our clients, we also have found it valuable to lay a strong foundation for our infographics and data visualization content. This includes our strategic analysis of a brand’s overall visual content strategy as well as the establishment of a consistent visual language to ensure that these graphics are consistent.
 
One example of this was our work with USA Today to define the look and feel of their infographics in print and online in conjunction with their recent rebrand. We have done similar work for RedBull, Dell and the Environmental Defense Fund. This type of work enables us to take a broader view of an organization’s objectives, which inform the ongoing utilization of impactful visual content.
 

Wrap-Up

We’d like to thank Ross for providing some insight into the incredible C5 design process and wish them luck with the opening of their new office in New York! Now, it would be impossible to single out the company’s best design, but this one for Udemy happens to be one of my favorite graphics ever: The Startup Ecosystem Predator vs. Prey.
startup ecosystem infographic

Interestingly Sara Bacon, a communications manager at Column Five, posted a case study on DashBurst about how Column Five’s Webby-nominated “Child of the ’90s” for Internet Explorer reached 28 million views back in April. The video has gained another 23 million views since, just seven months later!

People crave information, but Column Five proves nothing is more powerful than how to use a good story to communicate that information. The images in “Child of the ’90s” do just this, like the one taking us back to the days when “At least a troll was still a friend,” and “Lunch was a puzzle, not a picture.” The video almost makes us want to cry as we long for the days when we weren’t busy pumping our social media feeds with nonsense but rather pumping our shoes and music instead.

As you can see, Column Five is a world-class creative firm that is able to not only communicate complex information through great designs, but also to do its part to help inform, entertain and inspire us all. I really can’t wait to see the company’s next design!

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