Thursday, 14 January 2016

Six tricks to make your data visualisations look better

I saw a tweet yesterday from @colinttrainor and couldn't agree more with this idea.

(tweet shown split into two for clarity)

Whatever software you're using, there's simply no excuse for accepting the defaults and not trying to make your charts look more professional.

But where do you start? It's easy to look at great design and agree that it's great, but when you're looking at an Excel default, inspiration is much harder to come by. What do you change first?

These are a few tips, which I've picked up as I tried to make my own output look better and hopefully a few of you might find them useful too.

1. Make yourself a colour palette.

Your company very likely has a corporate colour palette that you're expected to use for PowerPoint, and whether it's good or bad, it doesn't half help to simplify your choices. Rather than selecting from the entire spectrum of colours, you'll have six or eight to work with that (hopefully) are designed to complement each other.

You can make your own colour palette really easily and use it to give your charts, your blog and anything else you build a consistent, professional feel.

Go to Adobe Color and have a play. Find some visualisation examples that you like, which will help you to decide on the feel of your palette. Do you like striking contrasts, or more subdued tones? There isn't a right answer, but what you choose will have a dramatic impact on the impression that your charts create.

2. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

If I had to reduce my Effective Data Visualisation for Marketers presentation down to a single tip, it would be this (paraphrasing Tufte): If it isn't essential to your chart, get rid of it.

Turn off gridlines, reduce colours, turn off legends and axes if you can,  Look at Colin's tweeted example above. Most of the difference between the two, comes from turning off gridlines and axes, leaving only data.

3. Black text looks amateur.

Have a look at virtually any professionally produced visualisation, infographic, or presentation document. Is the text black? Look closely, is the text jet black, rgb(0,0,0)? I bet it isn't.

On a white background, changing all of your text to a very dark charcoal shade of grey, just works. I'm not a designer so I don't know why it works, but it does. Just do it.

4. Are you sure you want a white background?

The answer might well be yes, but this one is worth thinking about. Clean, white space is a very good thing but a shaded background can lift your visualisations and give them extra pop.

You probably don't always want black, but it's worth keeping in mind to make bright colours jump off the page.

If not black or white, then light greys can look good. When you look closely, it's surprising how many visualisations that you might initially assume have a white background, actually don't.

Here's one of my football match single-page dashboards. The background is a very light, warm grey. On the white background of this blog post, it's easy to see, but against Twitter's dark image borders (which is where I use these), it's not nearly so obvious.

Bright colours definitely aren't for backgrounds and one other thing you absolutely must do if you change the background, is to change everything that was white background, into your new colour. Miss a spot and it will look awful.

5. Times New Roman? Yuk.

Like colour palettes, this is something that most companies do, but few individuals take the time to set up. It makes a difference.

Take the time to pick a font. Here are a couple of resources to help.

By the way, there's a reason that the example fonts above are a picture and I didn't just change the font in this blog post to type them. I want to show you exactly the fonts I chose and not every web browser will render all fonts correctly. If your computer doesn't have a particular font installed and a website tries to use it, then you'll get something else.

Have a read about web safe fonts.

Web safe fonts aren't important if you're drawing charts in Excel and publishing pictures of them, but they are if you're building Tableau dashboards to publish online. If a font isn't available, Tableau falls back onto Times New Roman and makes your dashboards look horrible. Some of my dashboards do this and I really need to fix them.

In Tableau, it's a good idea to use a very common font that's close enough to what you really wanted, than to try to use something beautiful, which nobody else will be able to see.

6. Different is good

There's one more overarching theme which I'd like to mention and it comes from the world of advertising: Different is good.

Different is eye catching, and it will set your work apart.

Even if Excel, Tableau, R and other programs' default charts were beautiful (which they aren't), there'd still be huge value in changing them. If your work looks like everybody else's work, then it's not eye catching, will blend in with everybody else's work and not get noticed.

Find your own visualisation tone of voice and your charts will stand out much more. It's not always easy to break away from the defaults and try to make something better, but it really is worthwhile.

Finally, remember...

Good artists copy, but great artists steal.

Picasso (maybe)

Google image search is your friend. Good luck!