Tips for better data visualization

Alex Bigman

Charts and graphs, not words, are the real substance of Powerpoint presentations, infographics, business brochures and just about every other data-oriented design product. If you want to keep a client coming back for more, you’re going to have to get an edge on the software-generated templates. Here’s how.

1. Know your chart types

First off, there’s a whole world of data visualization out there besides bar graphs. Rather than automatically falling back on the grammar school textbook basics, think about what data you’re being asked to visualize, and then survey your options.

For branching information you want to include in a small space, a circular dendrogram might work (did we mention this post would also improve your vocabulary?).

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A circular dendrogram

Or to include two types of data, like GVA growth and country size, on a single axis, consider a bubble scatter chart. The list goes on.

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A bubble scatter chart, via Business Insider

2. Wield Occam’s razor

When you’re making a graph or chart, you want to eliminate all clutter. Cut any information that isn’t absolutely necessary, and that includes non-data visual information like distracting background patterns and skeuomorphism.

We don’t think we could improve upon blogger Ginny Soskey’s instructions for chart simplification, so we will just direct you to her post. She presents a 9 step program to get your chart from this:

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To this:

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3. Brush up on geometry

There are many careless errors to avoid when designing charts and graphs. Flowingdata.com has a helpful list of reminders, including to double-check your data, and to remember to label your axes and include units.

One of the most forgivable, but nonetheless problematic, mistakes is to mess up your geometry. Remember, if you are using the size of a circle to represent the size of a sample, make sure you are calibrating this to the area of the circle, not its diameter.

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Design by Bureau Oberhaueser

4. Break outside the rectangle

You can make your data visualization more engaging by experimenting with unique shapes, like the pyramidal peaks you see below. Just make sure the content does not get muddled.

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Design by Jason Kirtley

You can even change the orientation to include a Z axis, as long as this does not produce information overload:

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Design by Julian Hrankov

5. Simplify colors

Resist the urge to make every line in your bar graph a different color—an amateur move by any measure. The graph below goes minimal-chic, doing away with all color except a gripping background orange.

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From Solo

Another option is to articulate different segments of information using different shades, rather than altogether different colors.

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Design by Bureau Oberhaueser

6. Flatten out

Not only is flat design now the user experience norm, but it is also the ideal approach to information design. Ditch your gradients, drop shadows and 3D effects, and replace them with vivid color and good typeface.

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Design by Seven

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7. Slim down

Similarly, there is no reason to make your graph lines and chart circles any thicker than they need to be.

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From Solo

8. Brand it

Many clients will ask that you incorporate their branding into your Powerpoint graphs or infographic elements, not only to preserve stylistic unity but also to help boost brand recognition. No doubt you can recognize that the revenue chart below belongs to Facebook, even without the massive earnings to clue you in. The blue gradients instantly recall the company’s branding.

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A chart of Facebook’s revenue, via TechCrunch

9. Consider outside tools

There are plenty of apps out there which promise to do the legwork for you, turning your raw data into well-designed visuals. We would recommend using these in moderation, so as to maintain the dominance of your own hand in your designs. However, sometimes outside assistance can be helpful, if only for inspiration.

Raw is a good app for turning spreadsheets into vector graphics, and Chartwell actually comes in the form of a font, using ligatures to convert your information into a chart shape. (For a more in-depth explanation of how Chartwell works, see this article on Fast Company.)

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What other tips do you have for data visualization? Share in the comments!

The author

Alex Bigman
Alex Bigman

Alex contributes from New York City on topics ranging from branding and typography to the history of design.

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