Creative knowledge translation using infographics

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Monday, February 22, 2021
Natasha Vitkin


Environmental health professionals work to protect and to improve public health by identifying, assessing, tracking, preventing and mitigating environmental hazards. Environmental health practitioners also play essential roles in communicating health risks and measures to reduce exposures. The content of these messages must be valid while equally ensuring it is clear and succinct.

Infographics (“information graphics”) are a useful way to share information using graphs, illustrations, and text. Interest in infographics have grown significantly since 2010, with Google documenting a 50-fold increase in the number of searches for infographics. Many established health organizations including the WHO, PHAC, and Statistics Canada now use infographics to help readers quickly understand complex information. Given the effectiveness of infographics as a knowledge translation tool, knowing how to lead an infographic project is an increasingly important skill in a health professional’s toolbox.

Why use infographics to communicate information?

Psychological research has demonstrated that most people learn more effectively from words and pictures than from words alone. Information stored as both visual and verbal memories improve overall recall.2 Meaningful learning also requires sorting data into a logical structure and generating relationships between data and pre-existing knowledge.1,3 Infographics check all the boxes for being an ideal learning tool: it presents complex ideas and relationships using concise text paired with clear visuals.4

Three recent systematic reviews showed that using icons and graphs to communicate health risk information improved understanding among populations with low educational backgrounds.5-7 Infographics have been used to improve community understandings of the environmental health risk assessment process to ensure accessibility and transparency.8 Study participants living near hazardous waste sites first looked at the pictures when moving through a risk assessment infographic developed by the government, then referred back to the text.8 The community benefitted from having a concise and understandable overview of the risk assessment process rather than a lengthy report inaccessible to people without scientific knowledge.8

Data from risk communication studies demonstrate that naturally occurring, invisible, and controllable risks are perceived as less important than human-made, catastrophic, observable, and uncontrollable risks.9 These results are supported by real-world responses. Consider public awareness about the hazards of radiation exposure to radon gas compared to the Chernobyl disaster. As many environmental hazards such as solar UV, arsenic and lead are difficult to see, it can be challenging to inspire action despite the importance of these issues to human health. This is where infographics can be more persuasive than text alone in relaying important information and in inspiring beneficial behaviour changes. Infographics are also more conducive to being shared online than text documents, enabling it to reach a large numbers of readers quickly and effectively.10,11 This function is key, particularly where behavioral responses can quickly help reduce exposures (e.g., during fire smoke events).

Creating better infographics

While infographics can be useful, they are not created equal. Poorly designed infographics can be distracting, cause misunderstanding, and may lead to reader frustration or rejection of key concepts.12  Consider the differences between Figure.1 and Figure.2. The first lacks focus, is visually busy, has distracting fonts, and has no clear take away message. The second figure leads the viewer through the visual argument, using a consistent and unified color palette, relatable figures, and simple engaging images.

Figure 1. Information about radon gas demonstrating common mistakes seen in infographics (the “don’ts”).

Bad infographic example

Figure 2. Information about radon gas presented in a clear and accessible infographic (“the do’s”).

Good infographic example

Whether you are working with a graphic designer to execute your infographic or creating it yourself, consider the following points:

Table 1: Some Do’s and Don’ts for better infographics




Create your major messages for your intended readers

  • Use no more than 3 major points with supporting data13
  • Write for a 5th grade reading level14
  • Provide only simple background information4


  • Add irrelevant information - it takes away from important points15
  • Forgot who you are writing for
  • Use jargon


Work with intended readers

  • Engage your audience early to ensure messages are understandable and culturally appropriate4
  • If possible, hold focus groups or interviews for detailed feedback 16


  • Assume “one format fits all”, as reader interpretation differs by life stage, prior knowledge, education, and other factors16

Describe risk information clearly

  • Use relative rather than absolute measurements5
  • Present familiar risk comparisons, such as being in a car crash5
  • Keep numbers simple, reduce decimals where you can.


  • Alter or embellish charts, (‘chart-junk’), which can reduce understanding among readers with low literacy levels2
  • Use too many numbers - pick the most important ones


Design complementary visuals

  • Use consistent fonts, colours, and visual elements to create unity13
  • Use 3-5 colours accessible to people with colour blindness4


  • Use colours that challenge sociocultural norms (such as blue for hot and red for cold)17
  • Use too many colours. Try shades of the same colour instead



Consider adding infographics to your environmental health communication toolbox. Thoughtfully planned and well-designed infographics can improve the communication of health information, while poorly designed infographics can confuse and mislead. Start the process with a plan that includes a succinct and concise message tailored to your audience. Work iteratively and if you are engaging a design team, ensure that colours and imagery reflect the tone of the message. The following list of resources is a helpful starting point for infographic and design programs, as well as some easy tools for creating clearer messages.

Resources: Programs to create infographics

Resources: Tools for clearer messaging and better design


  1. Mayer R (ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2014 doi:10.1017/CBO9781139547369.
  2. Paivio A. Dual coding theory: Retrospect and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie 1991; 45: 255–287.
  3. Wittrock MC. Generative Processes of Comprehension. Educational Psychologist 1989; 24: 345–376.
  4. Dunlap JC, Lowenthal PR. Getting graphic about infographics: design lessons learned from popular infographics. Journal of Visual Literacy 2016; 35: 42–59.
  5. Garcia-Retamero R, Cokely ET. Designing Visual Aids That Promote Risk Literacy: A Systematic Review of Health Research and Evidence-Based Design Heuristics. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 2017; 59: 582–627.
  6. Sheridan SL, Halpern DJ, Viera AJ, Berkman ND, Donahue KE, Crotty K. Interventions for individuals with low health literacy: A systematic review. Journal of Health Communication 2011; 16: 30–54.
  7. Zipkin DA, Umscheid CA, Keating NL, Allen E, Aung K, Beyth R et al. Evidence-based risk communication: A systematic review. Annals of Internal Medicine 2014; 161: 270–280.
  8. Kaufmann D, Ramirez-Andreotta MD. Communicating the environmental health risk assessment process: formative evaluation and increasing comprehension through visual design. Journal of Risk Research 2019; : 1–18.
  9. Slovic P, Fischhoff B, Lichtenstein S. Why Study Risk Perception? Risk Analysis 1982; 2: 83–93.
  10. Nahrisah P, Somrongthong R, Viriyautsahakul N, Viwattanakulvanid P, Plianbangchang S. Effect of Integrated Pictorial Handbook Education and Counseling on Improving Anemia Status, Knowledge, Food Intake, and Iron Tablet Compliance Among Anemic Pregnant Women in Indonesia: A Quasi-Experimental Study. Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare 2020; Volume 13: 43–52.
  11. Thoma B, Murray H, Huang SYM, Milne WK, Martin LJ, Bond CM et al. The impact of social media promotion with infographics and podcasts on research dissemination and readership. Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine 2018; 20: 300–306.
  12. Griffin J, Wright P. Older readers can be distracted by embellishing graphics in text. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 2009; 21: 740–757.
  13. Nersesian S, Vitkin N, Grantham S, Bourgaize S. Illustrating your research: design basics for junior clinicians and scientists. BMJ 2020; 370: m2254.
  14. Wang LW, Miller MJ, Schmitt MR, Wen FK. Assessing readability formula differences with written health information materials: Application, results, and recommendations. Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy 2013; 9: 503–516.
  15. Sanchez CA, Wiley J. An examination of the seductive details effect in terms of working memory capacity. Memory and Cognition 2006; 34: 344–355.
  16. Nicholson-Cole SA. Representing climate change futures: A critique on the use of images for visual communication. Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 2005; 29: 255–273.
  17. Crameri F, Shephard GE, Heron PJ. The misuse of colour in science communication. Nature Communications 2020; 11: 1–10.


Author Bio

Natasha Vitkin obtained her MSc in cancer immunology at Queen’s University, Kingston in 2018 and completed her MPH at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby in 2020. She is passionate about using visual knowledge translation strategies to promote equity and improve population health. She is an evaluation analyst at Cathexis Consulting and a research assistant with the Sexual and Mental Health Applied Research Team at Simon Fraser University. She also has experience working in the field of graphic design.