Leaving No Room For (Mis)Interpretation_ The Art of Creating a Beautiful Graph
One of the great things about graphs is that they’re short, sweet and to the point – however, that also means that there are rarely “small” problems in terms of graph design. Remember that you’re trying to visualize data in a compelling and understandable way – meaning that any mistake could cause people to misinterpret what you’re showing them and you don’t have the luxury of paragraph after paragraph of expository text to help correct the issue.
Based on that, you can leave no room for interpretation when creating your next graph. That, of course, requires you to keep a few key things in mind.
Figure Out What You’re Trying to Accomplish in the First Place
By far, the most important step you can take towards creating a beautiful graph that will really strike a chord with your target audience involves determining what it is that you’re trying to “show, not tell” in the first place.
Essentially, try to summarize exactly what you want your readers to take away from the graph when all is said and done. Are you trying to compare two or more values? Are you trying to show the relationship between two ideas? Are you trying to break down the composition of something into the sum of its individual parts to really show what a larger idea is made up of ?
If your goal was to compare values, something like a scatter plot or even a line graph would likely help you get the job done. If you were trying to compare two or more values, a bar graph is likely the way to go. If you’re trying to break a larger idea down into a series of smaller ones, or if you’re trying to visualize the results of something like a survey, a pie graph would undoubtedly be the way to go – although as always, your mileage may vary.
The key thing to understand is that when a lot of people run into trouble when using a tool like Visme (which I founded) to create beautiful graphs, the problem stems from the fact that they’ve chosen the wrong type of graph to begin with. Think about what you want to say before you choose how to say it – if you start there, everything else will more or less fall into place.
Fall Back on the Principles of Design
One of the major strengths that graphs bring to the table in the first place has to do with the idea that they’re inherently more visual than a lot of other types of collateral you might be working with. As opposed to something like a flyer or even a presentation where the visuals are intended to complement your other efforts, in terms of a graph the visuals are essentially what you’re there for – everything else is more or less secondary.
But because of this, a lot of people make the mistake of assuming that the format will take care of you completely and that the only thing you have to worry about is transposing the data as accurately as possible. In reality, a beautiful graph still relies heavily on design – the same as anything else – and mistakes to that end can really put you at a disadvantage right out of the gate.
Case in point: when designing your next graph, you really need to pay close attention to the colors you choose – as well as how those colors feed back into the larger intentions that you outlined at the start of the process.
Some colors work well together and some do not – depending on what you’re trying to show, this can be an advantage or a disadvantage. If you wanted to show the positive relationships between ideas on your graph, you should use colors that work in harmony together. If you wanted to essentially do the opposite, you should use colors that heavily contrast – this is a great, visual and subtle way to underline your point without using any words at all.
Likewise, don’t limit your thinking to this end to the graph itself. For the absolute best results, your graph should probably be on a white background – having a colorful background is only going to take away from your design, will give you one more thing that you now have to worry about and could potentially distract your audience from the data.
It’s Not About Making an Impression. It’s About Maximizing One
As is true with so many other types of collateral that you’re creating, brevity is perhaps the most powerful tool you have at your disposal when it comes to designing your graphs. Provided that you know what you’re trying to communicate (and have thus chosen the right graph format to begin with), and that you’ve thought the same way about the look and feel of your graph in terms of design as you would any other material you’re designing, you’ll wind up with something your audience loves and that also sells your central point in an incredibly effective way.
Payman Taei is the founder of Visme, an easy-to-use online tool to create engaging presentations, infographics, and other forms of visual content. He is also the founder of HindSite Interactive, an award-winning Maryland digital agency specializing in website design, user experience and web app development