Data is everywhere. It’s in typical numbers-focused areas like business metrics and finance reports. It’s in research and user data. Data can even be found in the analysis of Slack chat conversations— like if cat memes are more likely to be posted on Wednesday or Friday.
This is the era of big data. In fact, analysts estimate that the amount of data produced in two years is more than the amount of data produced in all of human history prior to that.
But in its raw form, data can easily be dismissed as a heap of numbers. It is through visualization that data is demystified. By using charts, graphs, and illustrations, the data is given both meaning and context. Wired magazine said, “One of the most valuable means through which to make sense of big data, and thus make it more approachable to most people, is through data visualization.”
Why We Visualize Data
Design is an important and powerful tool. Transforming data into strong visuals is a way to increase both understanding and audience engagement.
The BBC explains that data graphics are essential to their communications. First, the graphics help them stand out from their competitors. Second, using graphics adds a liveliness and freshness which is attractive to smartphone users. The news organization also explains that a well-visualized piece of data has the ability to create instant understanding.
When designing with data, the presentation of the information is more than just making it look pretty. The design is informing the reader as to what’s important— focusing the eye and then walking the viewer through the graphic. It’s part of a visual storytelling where the designer crafts how information should be read.
Design is also used to humanize your data. By adding illustrations and context, a well-designed graphic can bridge the gap between what the information is representing and what it’s saying.
The Challenges of Presenting Data
There are basic guidelines as to which chart to use for what type of data. For example, if your data represents parts of a whole (like a set of percentages that add up to 100%) a pie chart is one of the best ways to visualize the information. However, if you’re seeking to compare values (like showing this year’s numbers against last year’s), then a bar chart or line chart are good ways to display a comparison.
With the popularity of infographics and data visualizations, there is a risk is that graphics can become stale and formulaic. One designer even produced a cheeky infographic that highlighted some overused methods. Fast Company said, “Alberto Antoniazzi’s meta-infographic, which perfectly encapsulates the sorts of a failed attempts we regularly come across, made us smile with recognition.”
Outside of style choices, accuracy and visual truthfulness remain the most important factors. However, unlike the simplicity of a list of numbers, if visualizing data is done without skill, it can tell an incorrect story.
It’s easier than you might think to create false visualizations. For example, we commonly see the use of three-dimensional style pie charts that can create the appearance of altering the data’s ratios, making small pie segments seem larger than they actually are. For line graphs, it’s easy to alter how the data is seen by changing the vertical axis to heighten or lessen the change seen in a line graph.
The potential pitfalls when visualizing data are many. While it may seem like a benign task to put some data into charts, when it’s done incorrectly, you run the risk of telling untruths or looking foolish.
Format Follows Function
Because data has different audiences and different purposes, it needs to be used and presented in different ways. Similar to the design principle of “form follows function,” here at Visuals, we believe that when it comes to data graphics, format follows function. Choosing the right format for your data graphic can either reinforce or detract from the story that your data is telling. Below we have highlighted some formats of how your data can take shape.
Infographics: Balancing Data and Design
Infographics are a great way to simplify complex ideas by using a combination of text and imagery. These graphics need to be both eye-catching and engaging, and good infographics are a balance of design and data.
The goal is the sweet spot that makes the graphic easy for audience engagement while also delivering valuable information. If it’s not visually striking, the audience will likely pass it by, and you’ll never have an opportunity to deliver your message. On the flip side, beautiful graphics that don’t have interesting content are easily dismissed, which means that your business lost an opportunity for connection. For example, in this infographic called 25 Colorful Years, the Visuals team balanced data and design to present engaging content in an interesting way. Using a carnival theme, the graphic is a fun presentation of data points while avoiding any formulaic infographic pitfalls.
Data Visualizations: It’s All About The Numbers
Instead of balancing data and design like in infographics, data visualizations focus solely on the data. The audience for these projects are typically analysts or strong thinkers who prefer a straightforward presentation. In an effective data visualization, the information remains front and center as the focus of the piece, and the design supports the data so that it is clear and accessible.
Sometimes data visualizations take the form of dynamic dashboards or interactive web tools that allow users to explore a dataset. For example, this data visualization about the World’s Biggest Data Breaches by David McCandless presents a large amount of information in a beautiful way and then lets users explore on their own to find their own stories in the data.
Posters: Eye-catching with Data Highlights
Data-based posters are a great way to summarize information to communicate with people in real life. Instead of keeping the interesting data points contained within the digital realm, posters set the information free to be seen by anyone who walks by. Successful data posters will have a strong visual impact to catch attention which is paired with some key highlights or statistics.
In the pictured data poster about musician booking costs by Brian Fitzpatrick, we see how a poster can work in an office or studio environment. But data-based posters are also great solutions for communicating messages at presentations, workshops, events, conferences, or festivals. We’ve even seen how data posters can be used in business as an Annual Report, highlighting the year’s data to be showcased on a wall instead of stacked on bookshelves.
Murals: Data Becomes Wall Art
Lastly, we’ve seen how businesses have transformed data into wall art. This pictured mural is located at the 3M headquarters in Australia. Throughout the five-story building, the company used, “Large-scale illustrations and graphic portraits pay homage to key inventors and innovators from 3M’s past,… and showcase the company’s brand evolution over the last hundred years.” Because innovation is the cornerstone of 3M’s business, this wall graphic celebrates creativity with quotes like “Collaboration yields progress” and “Creativity comes from freedom.”
Whatever your business goals or audience type, Visuals Studio is here to help you navigate the best way to showcase your data. Get in touch to start a conversation about how we can help you give meaning and context to your data.
Visuals is a creative micro-agency with a mission to add life to your ideas and digital solutions. Find out more about our products and creative process by visiting http://visuals.ilab.dk/.