Visualization rules to live by- Leave the pie charts to the desserts

.visualization rules

There’s a reason road signs are often pictures and not words. Whether you are signaling ‘road work ahead’ or a rise in quarterly sales, visualization can help. It’s important to remember that visualizations can be a foundational vehicle for information, rather than defaulting to using it as a decoration. Whether you consider yourself a pie chart novice or a tableau guru, we can all improve our charts and images. Here are four tried and true tips for better visuals:

Story first, visual second

Your story should come first. Visuals are naturally where our eye starts, so make sure those visuals are adding to your story, not detracting. Though this is a post about making better visuals, part of that is knowing when to avoid them altogether.  An icon should not be used to ‘pretty up’ a slide but instead an integral part of your story. This should lead you to ask, “what am I really trying to say?” For example, what does that dollar sign that you just pasted in mean?  Does it highlight your story about high consumer spending? Or is it just taking up space? Asking these questions should push you to tell a better, more succinct story. Better visuals mean sticking to meaningful visuals. Skip the fluff.

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 as important as the data. Get comfortable with the options: maps, bar charts, line graphs, color gradients, timelines, icons, word clouds and much more. It’s easy to picture how a consumer journey would fit well into a flow chart, but don’t be afraid of the ‘hard to reach’ visuals. Word clouds that look for sentiment and word frequencies are a great way to bring those annoying- to -code quotes to life. A little leg work goes a long way. (Plus, there is a plethora of free software out there that make this easier.)

But one word of caution: avoid pie charts.

Unless you are representing actual pie and this is comic relief, please avoid a pie chart. Here’s why: The pie chart is the easiest chart to generate and the easiest to abuse. Pie charts are only good for something that is a percentage that adds up to 100 and is broken up into 3-4 categories. That’s it. If it’s obviously two categories (example: yes/no) don’t use a pie chart. Trust that your audience can do mental math that gets to 100%. Even if you are reporting on apple pie metrics, you should never use multiple pie charts together. This is because 1) the human eye struggles with size comparison between circles and 2) it’s often cluttered. Unless the comparison is drastic, slices within a singular pie can look very similar to the human eye. Adding multiple pie charts on one page only makes this comparison harder. Also, and this should go without saying but, make sure that 60% looks like 60% and not something like 40%. Proportions matter. That sounds silly, but it happens more often than you’d think. (don’t believe me? Google ‘bad pie charts’…)

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 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.

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 “go-green, stop-red” color combinations, remember that some may see your chart as a large yellow blur.

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:







Photo credit: http://www.comedycentral.com.au/taste-bud/articles/what-percentage-of-this-pie-chart-is-actual-pie

Sources (colorblindness): https://nei.nih.gov/health/color_blindness/facts_about