Ways to Enhance Data Visualizations: The Curse of the Pie Chart

Ways to Enhance Data Visualizations

Let’s face it, we could all benefit from being more visual in our presentations. From marketing and branding to finance and project management, visualizations help us pack information into 5-10 second bite sizes. Visuals should be your go to, not an afterthought “to pretty up reports.” Market researchers present possibly the best opportunity for data visualization. Our job is to synthesize large amounts of data and present them in a meaningful way for our clients, sparking them into action. So, make your visual do the work for you! Whether you are a pie chart novice or a tableau guru, here are four tried and true tips for better visuals.

Story first, visual second

Visuals are eye catching and where the audience tends to drift first. So visuals should be communicating something important. Though this is a post about making better visuals, part of that is understanding when not to include them as well. A chart should not be used to ‘pretty up’ a slide but should be an integral part of your story. Does that icon of a dollar sign really add to your story about consumer spending? Is it just taking up space? This should lead you to ask, “what am I really trying to convey?” Are you trying to show spending at an all-time high over a span of time? Are you quantifying quarterly expenses (actual versus budget)? This should push you to tell a better, more succinct story. Not only will your audience appreciate the visuals but they will walk away with more information.

Understand chart types

You have developed a concise story with data that would be better as a visual. Congrats! Now the issue remains, what to pick? Chart type is important because each is designed for a specific purpose. Line charts are good for timelines while bar charts are good for quantity comparison. Selecting what fits your data is important in conveying your information well. Get comfortable with the options: maps, bar charts, color gradients, and word clouds. Go explore! Also, don’t be afraid to do some coding for your qualitative data. Consider tools such as word frequencies, sentiment analysis for negative versus positive, etc. A little legwork on will help visually convey your message.

But one word of caution: avoid pie charts.

I should start a movement called “Stop the pie chart.” Unless you are representing pie or something circular for comic relief, please just don’t. Here’s why: The pie chart is the easiest to generate and the easiest to abuse. Pie charts are only good for something that is a percentage with 2-4 categories. You should never use multiple pie charts together. The human eye struggles with size comparison between two circles or similar sized pieces. And please, proportions should correspond with what they are communicating. You may laugh at this, but you have no idea how many bad pie charts I’ve encountered over the years.

Exclude frills

The best visuals are ones that convey a lot of information that can be understood in five seconds or less. How do you achieve this? Avoid the frills. That means everything you put into your chart is necessary to your story including shapes, colors, and lines. If you aren’t articulating something new by making your bars different colors, then don’t. It’s tempting to “liven up” your chart, but meaningless additions are distractions not bonuses. Your chart should be as simple as possible. Period. Its purpose is to convey information not be an art piece admired then ignored.

A note on color choice. Colors have strong connotations. Make sure your meaning matches the color you pick. Depicting strength? Avoid a “cowardly yellow.” Demonstrating strong fiscal growth? Maybe pick green or black, colors of growth, instead of red, the color of debt. Moreover, try to avoid using green and red together.

The National Eye Institute reported that about 8% of the male population has some form of red-green colorblindness. Though you might be tempted to use “good-green, stop-red” color combinations, remember that some may see your chart as a large yellow blur. Your graphics should be accessible to everyone in your audience.

Help is out there—finding inspiration and software

Feeling pigeon-holed by Excel’s and PowerPoint’s chart building capabilities? Looking for better inspiration on beautiful graphs? Want examples of cardinal sins of data visualization? There are dozens of resources online. A simple Google search will introduce you to a plethora of different software, many of which are free. Some of my favorites are Tableau Public or Zoho. If you are working with confidential information, consider purchasing a subscription service or get creative with Excel!

Need inspiration? Check out Reddit and Tumblr. My favorite accounts on Reddit are Data is Beautiful and the what-not-to-do inverse of Data is Ugly. You will see everything from charts nothing short of masterpieces (e.g. a timeline with every color of Mr. Roger’s sweaters in chronological order) to examples of pie chart and color combinations that should never go together.


Resources to just be inspired by:







Sources: https://nei.nih.gov/health/color_blindness/facts_about