Ineffective data visualization inevitably leads to 1 of 2 outcomes — your audience either has to work unnecessarily hard to understand what you’re trying to say, or else they simply don’t understand at all. Given that the whole point of data viz is to make information easier to understand, weak execution just won’t do. Luckily, there are some general rules of thumb to follow if you want to make sure your bar charts and line graphs are doing what they’re supposed to do.
Start With the Right Content
As you’re gathering data and information to visualize, try to avoid fluff. By fluff, we mean inconsequential or potentially inaccurate information. Good data viz offers an implicit promise to the viewer, one that says “not only is this information easy to digest, it’s also worth digesting.” Don’t betray the trust of someone who approaches your work in genuine good faith — pretty nonsense is still just nonsense, and they might feel cheated.
Hard numbers often constitute the most sound data, and we’d urge you to emphasize them for this reason alone. However, they also present the most opportunity for varied styles of visualization. Bar graphs, pie charts, and scatter plots are just some of your many options. Mixing and matching them within an infographic will help create visual interest and keep your audience’s attention.
On the flip side, you don’t need to be afraid of text. A simple line of copy can mean the difference between clarity and confusion. Just make sure you avoid any large blocks of text, as the average viewer likely won’t be willing to read very much.
Choose a Suitable Aesthetic
Serious data deserves a serious tone. If you’re trying to visualize data about global poverty levels, it’s probably inappropriate to choose a whimsical, illustration-heavy style of data-viz (think circular bar charts wrapped around icons of empty wallets). An inappropriate aesthetic could very well distract your audience from the information at hand.
That said, it’s often a good idea to have a little fun. Think of the opposite scenario — if you’re using hyper-professional charts and graphs to convey information about America’s most popular Halloween costumes, your viewer might become equally distracted. It’s all about finding the right tone for your specific content.
Emphasize Clarity Over Cleverness
The simple truth is that sometimes a standard bar graph is the most effective way to visualize your data. The majority of educated people are accustomed to deciphering them, and those who aren’t will very likely still be able to intuit their meaning. That means you can save everybody — including your graphic designer — some valuable time. This is a wonderful thing.
Another key component of clarity is the willingness to revise. As is the case in other creative pursuits, good ideas for data viz can almost always be made better through feedback and critique. Ask a few different people to take a look at your work and see if they agree that it’s communicating your point clearly and quickly.
The Bottom Line
Data viz can help you reach new audiences and convey meaning more efficiently by transcending language and educational barriers. It makes good sense to visualize your data whenever possible. Just make sure you’re doing it effectively.