Who’s the Audience?
Analyze your audience before analyzing your data. Their preferences will guide every other decision about your visualization—the dissemination mode, the graph type, the formatting, and more. You might be designing charts for policymakers, funders, the general public, or your own organization’s leaders, among many others. A chart designed for local government leaders wouldn’t be appropriate for a group of program implementers, and vice versa.
During the planning phase, discuss these questions with your teammates:
- Who’s my audience?
- Are my audiences technical or non-technical?
- What types of decisions do your viewers make? What information do they already have available? What additional information can your data provide?
- What’s worth visualizing in the body of the report? Which information is so important that it deserves to go into a standalone summary? Which information should be pushed into the appendix at the back of the report and left out of the report’s body altogether?
- How many points in time do our viewers need to see?
- How many decimal places are useful?
- What types of comparison data are available?
- Will you present the data as-is, or tell a story?
How Will I Share My Charts?
Your audience determines the type of visualization you prepare. Spend some time thinking about your dissemination format before you sit down at the computer to design your visualization. The days of 100+ page narrative reports are long gone. Nowadays viewers want visual reports, executive summaries, live presentations, handouts, and more.
During the planning phase, discuss these questions with your teammates:
- How will your completed chart ultimately be shared? Within the body of a longer report? As the star of a one-page handout?
- Do my audiences have time and interest to explore an interactive website? Or should you design a static handout that can be emailed or shared at a meeting?
- Will your graphs be shared in-person, or read on-screen?
- How often will this information be shared? Once? Monthly? Quarterly? Annually?
- Will the graphs be printed in full color or photocopied in black and white?
- Will the page layout be tall and skinny (reports) or short and fat (slideshows)?
- What are the paper dimensions and how many pages are needed (e.g., 8.5 x 11, 11 x 17)?
- Can the graphs live inside Excel, or will they created within PowerPoint, Word, or another program?
Common dissemination formats include:
- Peer-reviewed journal articles.
- Summary tables in appendices.
- Technical reports.
- Executive summaries of reports.
- Standalone summaries like policy briefs. If you know your viewers won’t read more than a page or two, try a one-page summary. Here’s a one-page annual report I created.
- Presentations with slides and/or handouts.
- A Letter from the Director.
- Press releases.
- Tweeting your graphs. If you are planning to tweet a chart or two, be sure to adjust your charts to fit Twitter’s current width-to-height aspect ratio (e.g., 2:1, 4:3, etc.). Otherwise, your carefully crafted visualization will get chopped in half because when you are scrolling through your Twitter feed, the images automatically display roughly twice as wide as they are tall.
- … and more.
There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all graph or report. You’ll need to tweak graphs to match their dissemination formats.
Which Chart Matches My Message?
Will you use a bar chart, a pie chart, or something else altogether? There are a dozen correct ways to graph each of your datasets. Your job is to sketch all the options and then discuss the pros and cons of each option with a colleague.
I also use quickie computer strategies, like Excel’s spark lines and conditional formatting, to help me narrow down the focus of my charts.
- Spark lines. Spark lines are miniature within-cell bar charts and line charts. They’re available in Excel 2010 and higher on both PCs and Macs. To insert spark bars or spark lines, highlight the row or column that you’re interested in, and then head over to Insert > Spark Line. It takes a lot of mental energy to read each and every number in tables, so spark lines provide an instant glimpse at the highs and lows in my dataset. I use these insights to think about which patterns I might want to visualize in my final product.
- Data bars. Data bars are miniature within-cell bar charts. Learn how to make data bars.
- Heat tables. The larger numbers automatically get colored in with darker colors and the smaller numbers get colored in with lighter colors. Now, I can spot the highs and lows in my dataset instantly. Sometimes I use these heat tables as inspiration for future charts, that is, to locate patterns that should get emphasized in other bar charts or line charts. Other times, these heat tables are my final product. I might add a title and make the spreadsheet printer-friendly. Then I can print the color-coded table and share it as a handout at a meeting.
Displaying 1 Point in Time
Displaying 2 Points in Time
Displaying 3+ Points in Time
Small Multiples Layouts
Which Software Tool Should I Use?
Excel, Tableau, and R are the some of the most popular tools on the market. These multitasking software programs allow you to both crunch your numbers and design your graphs, and their default graphing settings—while imperfect—are highly customizable with just a few clicks.
- Your brain is the best visualization tool of all time.
- Excel. With an estimated user base of 500 million people worldwide, many of us use Excel at work and personally for home budgets, projects, to-do lists, and more.
Which Formatting Edits Are Needed?
Once you’ve built your graph in the software program of your choosing, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and make intentional edits. Good data visualization is all about creating contrast. First, declutter by deleting as much ink as possible. Then, then sharpen your desired message with titles, subtitles, annotations, labels, and color.
Declutter by Removing Redundancies
Remove or lighten unnecessary ink. Squint at the graph: can you see the data, or are your eyes distracted by noise on the page?
Sharpen the Takeaway Finding with Text
Your graph’s title, subtitle, and/or annotations can work together to strengthen your message.
Sharpen the Takeaway Finding with Color
Color can enhance branding and guide your viewers to the most important pieces of the graph.
Putting It All Together
Once you’ve edited a single graph, combine multiple graphs within reports, dashboards, infographics, or slideshows.
- Sketch on paper and within a grid.
- Add white space between groupings of graphs.
- Establish a text hierarchy for the page as a whole.
Why wait until the end of the year to hand stakeholders a 100-page report? Share findings early and often with dashboards. Dashboards typically fall into one of these types:
- Comparisons at a single point in time;
- Comparisons across multiple points in time;
- Progress towards a goal;
- Progress towards a goal over time;
- A series of matching dashboards; or
- A combination of any of these types.
Or, Download the Workshop Guidebook
Here’s the 37-page guidebook that I provide during workshops.
Purchase the workshop guidebook ($20)