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A picture of health: Design-led approaches to improve health and wellbeing

If you panic when you’re presented with a sheaf of paper filled with numbers, graphs and tables, you’re not alone. Statistical information is difficult to understand for a large section of the general public – yet data is necessary so we can make decisions every day, including important ones such as decisions about our finances or about our health.

That’s where infographics can be really helpful. These visual representations of data use shape, line, colour and illustration and offer a different way in which to communicate statistical information more effectively.

Infographics for public health have been the focus of Dr Catherine Stones’ (School of Design, University of Leeds) work with Public Health England. The study, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, involved gauging the public’s general understanding of and preferences for public health infographics and evaluating public reaction to novel data displays such as street infographics.

Air quality infographic on the side of an air monitoring station, Bradford. Credit: Dr Catherine Stone.

One of the results of the project was the development of a series of street infographics for display in Bradford and Leeds. The project’s advisory board decided that the focus should be on air quality and prototypes were developed based on original and sourced air quality data from the area. Catherine explains: ‘It was important to gauge people’s reaction to the designs. Mock-ups of a series of street infographics were shown to members of the general public. The designs were judged to be more effective when they were seen in unexpected environments. That meant using sites such as the sides of an actual air monitoring station on one of the busiest streets in Bradford – and even underneath a parked car!’ The design placed in Bradford was seen by thousands of busy commuters and featured in an article in the Telegraph & Argus newspaper discussing air quality in the area.

Dr Mike Gent, part of the project’s advisory board and a former GP now working for Public Health England, is keen to see the wider employment of infographics.

“You need methods of communicating with people that are simple, that appeal to them and that just get the message across,” he says.

“We do a lot with data, we present it and we tend to do it in quite a complicated manner, using graphs and things like that. That’s fine if you’re good with data and can understand it, but if you’re not, then it gets very difficult, and the public understanding of graphs is actually very poor.”

Gent takes pains to point out that infographics are not a quick fix, and not something that works for everyone, adding: “If you’re very data driven, sometimes you don’t appreciate other people aren’t and they don’t understand your graphs. If you’re infographic-driven, you might not appreciate that people are data-driven and they don’t like your graphics. It’s not a wonder weapon that will appeal to everyone, but it’s part of the armoury in the box to present data to different audiences.”

Another result of the project was a set of design guidelines to improve the standard of infographics produced by public health organisations. They are now available online, receiving impressive traffic from visitors globally. They have also been circulated in hard copy to every Local Authority in the country. Catherine has been invited to run workshops in the North East, York and Leicester to share her work so far and to improve design knowledge about infographics.

Now she’s hopeful that this kind of work will improve public awareness of important public health issues – but also expand into different fields, as well as help non-data specialists in decision-making positions to understand the information they’re handling.

“The ultimate aim for something like this would be to change policies within the local authorities, and there is a chance of that,” she says. “I think it could run and run.”

To find out more about this project and to download the guidelines free of charge, please visit www.visualisinghealth.com

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