Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics – Data Visualisation

February 22, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

1. Choose the right graph type for your data – trends are best presented as line graphs, whilst totals are best as histograms (bar charts). Proportions are best compared using pie charts, and lots of sets of similar data, lends itself to tables.

2. Titles – give your tables, graphs and charts easy to understand titles, and make sure they really explain what the data being presented is all about. Instead of ‘Graph of population’ say ‘Graph showing exponential population increase over the last 5 years.’

3. When deciding whether to present your data in a table or a graph, consider that graphs are good at quickly showing rough trends, they don’t necessarily require detailed or specific data, and are good at showing significant comparisons. Tables, however, are very good for showing large amounts of data, exact figures, and lots of sets of numbers.

4. Our eyes find it easy to scan the horizontal and vertical rows of tables and you can let the data itself guide the eyes. You don’t need horizontal or vertical lines (rules), which can even get in the way of scanning. Consider using tinted lines behind rows or columns of figures to distinguish them, and when column headings are long words or sentences, consider running them on to two or more lines.

You can also run them diagonally, or if absolutely necessary, abbreviate the words to make them shorter. Abbreviation works to really good effect in football league tables where the data content is so well known that the column headings ‘W L P F’ for example are immediately read as ‘Won, Lost, Played, Goals for…’ etc.

5. Keep the design simple and don’t use fancy or elaborate images of things to represent data. If you use pictures of things (like icons) to present statistics, don’t make one pictogram bigger than another because the eye can’t detect how much bigger one is from another. Instead, use one pictogram to stand for one unit of value, and have multiple pictograms to represent comparable sets of data. (This is often known as ‘Isotype’, and is named after the Istotype institute who pioneered this method of graphic statistics.)

6. Make sure that scales are the same – i.e. consistent – across a series of charts – if you don’t, a reader will compare two graphs thinking that they are visually comparable when they are not. Changing the scale just confuses – and could even deceive – readers.

Article submitted by Andrew Boag, Director at BoagMcCann Ltd. BoagMcCann has over 25 years’ experience designing award-winning customer communications, information guides and visual aids. To find out more about effective customer communication and how BoagMcCann can help optimise your return on investment, visit

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