What are the rules of clean and simple graphics?

By Kathleen Sullivan, Gannett/SND

The question: How to do graphics that are clean and simple – what are the rules?

Good graphics don’t distract, confuse or mislead the reader. The goal is to inform as quickly and best as possible.

An example:

Cairo referenced the famous “ghost map” by John Stow, which plotted cases of cholera in an 1854 London neighborhood. This was a highly effective way to illustrate that everyone affected shared the same water pump. Simple infographics are powerful ways to inform the public and don’t need to be overdone.

Cairo believes in structure and using systematic approaches as an infographic artist and as a teacher. He stressed the importance of multidisciplinarity — using different disciplines to achieve desired results.

“In order to understand multimedia and interaction, we must understand the different disciplines,” Cairo said. Design, journalism, cartography, and cognitive psychology are among the disciplines Cairo thinks everyone should have a good understanding of.

Keep it simple and act like a reader. If you can’t understand it — neither will they.

One of the points Alberto kept going back to was that sometimes, a bar chart is the best way to go. Don’t try to overcomplicate your graphics for the sake of aesthetics — you could end up making your data harder to understand. Making sure your readers know what they’re looking at.

“Think functional before aesthetical.”

Bubble charts are best used for “big picture” graphics. Stick to simple and clean forms for detailed information.

Lastly, Cairo emphasized collaborating with experts and getting really involved in the process of creating an information product. Software is great, but sitting down and sketching out an idea is where you should start. Evolve with the software, but only use it as your delivery mechanism. Create the platforms yourself.

Alberto Cairo’s reading list:

These are the books that I recommend to get started in each one of these areas. Each one of them will lead you to more and more readings.


How to Lie With Maps

Thematic Mapping and Visualization

How Maps Work

Elements of Cartography


How the Mind Works

Information Visualization

Visual Thinking for Design

Visual Communication


Graph Design for the Eye and Mind

Information Dashboard Design

Information Graphics


The Back of the Napkin

Information Design Workbook

The Practical Guide to Information Design