Adobe Illustrator tutorial: Create cool infographics

Translate abstract data into a 3D, easy-to-understand illustration with these tips from Wendy Ding.

Intro


Infographics, such as the one opposite, are great visual tools for communicating large amounts of data. Breaking down large amounts of abstract data, they place the information in context and transform it into tangible and useful knowledge. 

With a bit of personality and fun, an infographic can become a distinctive and charming way for the viewer to learn and access data. The most important aspect is the underlying message – the primary information that is being illustrated. All other elements should complement and reinforce the primary meaning to the viewer.

For this tutorial, we’re going to be working with data I’ve compiled on images I found on Flickr.com. I chose skirt lengths and their wearers’ locations as my topic and looked through 29 photos. Before I began sketching, I visualized how to best display the overall design and legends. 

To contain my findings and various geographical locations, I opted for a clean chunk of land with a beach and underground train – a normal bar graph wouldn’t have been visually dynamic enough to display such a range of information.

Tools

Adobe Illustrator CS2 or above

Time to complete

1 - 2 hours

Step 1

STEP 1

The best way to begin is to create a sketch using pen and paper. For this diagram, I sketched an isometric chunk of land with edges for the beach and an underground train for further depth. Taking into consideration that some information will need further explaining, I illustrated it in two ‘callouts’ (exploded details). Remember to leave some space for the title and legend – as my sketch is largely horizontal, I left some room at the top and sides.  


Step 2

STEP 2

Once you’re happy with the sketch, scan it and don’t worry about adjusting the brightness, as long as the image is clear – it will only be used as a guide in creating the image. Next, place it on the bottom layer of a new Illustrator document as a template by double-clicking on the layer, then ticking Template in the dialog box. Then name and save your document. 

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Step 3

STEP 3

Trace the outline of the isometric landscape using the Pen tool: click on the artboard with the Pen tool, and click again on a second point. Hold down the second point as you click and drag to make a curved line. Click the second point again to close one of the handles. Repeat this to create a complete shape, joining the last point with the first. Use the Direct Selection tool (A) to tweak the shape by clicking on the points and handles.


Step 4

STEP 4

The Divide button in the Pathfinder panel (Window > Pathfinder) is great for slicing bigger shapes into smaller shapes; this saves time by avoiding the need to create smaller shapes separately. 

To divide a shape, draw a line or another shape with the Pen tool across a shape; this will be the cut-line. Next, select both and click the Divide button. Ungroup the object (Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + G) and there are now two newly sliced shapes. Nearly every complex object with a neat edge was created this way.


Step 5

STEP 5

Draw the ground with the Pen tool and colour it a mid-green (#97C947) with no fill. Next, select the ground and apply an Inner Glow with Effect > Stylize > Inner Glow in #469923, with the opacity set to 75%, with Edge ticked.  

Using a separate layer for each, draw the ground’s other details – streets, parking lot, beach, and so on. Keep each object on a separate layer in an appropriate stacking order as this will make creating the diagram more logical and efficient.

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Step 6

STEP 6

One area might prove tricky: the beach. The transition from land to sand to water is more organic than metal and flat surfaces, so a regular Gradient wouldn’t work here. Use a Gradient Mesh (U) for this area: bend and twist the grid to create the contours. Then, using the Direct Select tool, select certain points and modify the colours accordingly. 


Step 7

STEP 7

We also need to emphasize the diagram’s 3D quality with a clean cut to the sides of the land and water. Using the Pen tool, create the sides and applied a Radial Gradient from the Gradient panel in green and blue. Next, tweak the corners using the Direct Select Tool (A) so they joined together perfectly. Last, I apply a Drop Shadow using Effect > Stylize > Drop Shadow in #000000, with the blending mode set to Multiply and the opacity set to 44%.


Step 8

STEP 8

Next, add in secondary elements such as buildings, trees, and an underground train using bright colours and subtle glows. Create everything starting from the objects that are closest to the background (walls, floors) to those that are closest to the foreground (desktop objects, people); this will keep the layer stacking order easier. Add details to the buildings and callouts to make everything more interesting and to encourage a Where’s Wally? effect.

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Step 9

STEP 9

The key to making 3D images pop is using three main tones for objects: a base colour (main colour of object), a light area (the side that is brightest and facing the light source) and a darker shadow area. This can be seen in objects such as the car and buildings. Further details like the drop shadows to the sides of the land also add more depth.


Step 10

STEP 10

Convert repeating elements to Symbols to reduce the overall file size: here, we’d want to do this for the trees, girls in skirts and some office furniture. To create a symbol, select the objects then drag them into the Symbols panel. Then, drag and place each Symbol onto the artboard (the work area). A drop shadow was applied to the girls in skirts to give them depth and visibility.


Step 11

STEP 11

Create the callout illustrations and mask each with a circle shape. To do this, create a circle with the Ellipse tool (L) and place it on top of the section of illustration to be masked, then select both objects, right-click (Ctrl + click) and select Make Clipping Mask. Then place a bigger circle underneath to add an outline. 

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Step 12

STEP 12

Place each symbol of the girls vertically and line them up by selecting them and pressing the Horizontal Align Center button under Window > Align. To place the text, use the Type tool (T) to create the text and place it roughly to the right of each symbol, and then selected each set and align it again using the Horizontal Align Center button.


Step 13

STEP 13

To create a graph, select the Column Graph tool (J) and click on the artboard, then enter the data into each column. Once completed, select the Check button to make the graph appear. 

To customize the graph, direct-select each bar and duplicate it by copy-and-pasting it. Then place the numbers and words with the Type tool. 


Step 14

STEP 14

Customize the fonts quickly using Cmd/Ctrl + T, which brings up the Characters and Paragraphs panel. To keep with the style of simple and modern, I chose the font Print Clearly for the main copy for its lightness and legibility, and Howie’s Funhouse for the title as it’s a bit bolder. Both fonts have a friendly feel with rounded edges and feminine appeal.

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Step 15

STEP 15

Now that everything is complete, look over every aspect of the infographic. Can the average viewer easily understand what is being conveyed? 

The most important attribute in creating infographics is that it explains the relevant and important information – so the background and surrounding elements should highlight and strengthen the information, rather than competing with or obstructing it. For this topic, the more fun details we could put in, the better.