Dissecting the mantis shrimp: everything infographics should be

Dissecting the mantis shrimp: everything infographics should be

In the spring, The Oatmeal posted a new comic titled Why the mantis shrimp is my new favorite animal. It quickly made the rounds on social media, but I initially paid it no mind. It’s not that I have anything against The Oatmeal or the art of its creator Matthew Inman. It’s just not my typical cup of tea. (Surprising, I know, since we seem to share an affinity for cats and grammar.)

That said, The Oatmeal has a huge following of almost 100,000 people on Facebook alone. That includes 18 of my friends who regularly share content from the site. I was happily ignoring the mantis shrimp when a bunch of people started commenting about it, and I’m not too proud to admit curiosity got the better of me.

Yes, I clicked — and found an amazing comic with all the makings of a high-impact infographic. I loved it and immediately Liked The Oatmeal on Facebook. Then I shared the comic with a friend.

5 infographic must-haves

Being the nerd I am, I had to dissect why I liked this post above others from the site. What made this one so special? I realized it has five elements of data visualization at its best.

  1. 1. Obscurity made accessible. The purpose of an infographic isn’t to dumb down the data. It’s to make complex data easier to understand in a visually compelling way (i.e., by showing something a bit more interesting than a line graph or pie chart). Similarly, Inman’s comic displays scientific content in a simple, humorous style that remains educational.
    His inspiration? A RadioLab podcast about color. Haven’t heard it? Me neither. In fact, I hadn’t heard of the mantis shrimp at all before April. Nothing about its 16-color receptor cones (vs. our three or the two dogs have) that enable it to see “a thermonuclear bomb of light and color.” Not a peep about its penchant for death or two raptorial appendages (aka murder sticks) that accelerate with the same velocity as a gunshot from a 22-caliber rifle. Nada.
    Podcasts and articles on the mantis shrimp are interesting in their own right, but the scientific community tends to talk over many people’s heads. Inman brings the topic down to earth with real-world examples anyone can understand (e.g., the rifle example above). When I finished reading the comic, I felt smarter and appreciated that I didn’t need to work too hard for the knowledge.
  1. 2.  Digestible chunks. It’s easy to understand what Inman’s trying to get at. He structures information to highlight a single important piece of data at a time, so you can form thoughts on the data point and then move on. I also appreciate that in its entirety, the comic is short, appealing to those with limited time or attention spans.
  1. 3. Fun art. Inman mixes original, bright visuals with real-world photos to hold your attention and draw the eye. He also plays with typography, using colored backgrounds for facts and captions to convey the “thoughts” of the mantis shrimp. A great example is an illustration of a combat-ready mantis shrimp, created to support the fact that researchers are studying the mantis shrimp’s cell structure for use in developing advanced body armor.
  1. 4. Strong narrative. There’s a cohesive story from start to finish. Plus, plenty of pithy sound bites such as “Aaaaaaaaand now you’re dinner,” ONETWOTHREE DEATH!” and “the mantis shrimp is a harbinger of blood-soaked rainbows” that stick with you. All you need to do to bring friends in on the joke is share the comic. (Warning: Use caution when sharing with co-workers as these sound bites can quickly become office catchphrases.) mantisshrimpcomic.png
  1. 5. Distinct point of view. Notice the title of the comic is, “Why the mantis shrimp is my new favorite animal.” It’s a title that sets expectations — I’m going to find out why the mantis shrimp is so cool — and lets me know that Inman thinks the mantis shrimp is awesome and a subject worthy of my time. Gotta hand it to him — he’s right.

Before the mantis shrimp came into my life, I never felt the need to follow The Oatmeal on Twitter, to Like or Share the site’s content on Facebook. Heck, I’m even writing about and linking back here, giving it a potential boost on Google. All it took was one piece of funny, well thought-out content to get me hooked. I’m even eyeing mantis shrimp t-shirts and signed prints (about 75% or The Oatmeal’s revenue comes from merchandising).

That, my friends, is the power of a great infographic (even if it looks like a comic) — and exactly what we all strive to accomplish in sticky content creation.

Leave a Reply