“One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words.” The phrase, often attributed to Fred Barnard after it appeared in the advertising trade journal Printer’s Ink, also applies to the visual presentation of data. While our focus is often on higher education, the above idiom applies to all the business world.
Quite often we find ourselves needing to present information to others to draw their attention to an issue and inspire them to action. Even more often, we present to those who are extremely busy, have little time, and perhaps even less patience. Charts are a key method for conveying data to this audience.
While our methods of creating and presenting charts have changed over time, the most successful presentations have always had the same basic characteristics:
- Have roots in a deep understanding of the data, why it is important, and what it means to the target audience
- Are meaningful to, and inspire action by, those who consume them
- Are specific to the purpose they were created for, and not to serve many audiences
- Focus on the data, and not on the features of the tool used to create them
What message are we conveying?
Generally speaking, there are three messages charts should convey to the audience: comparison, transition, and composition.
Comparison – displays the data in a way that conveys the highs and lows, best and worst, or the good and the bad
Transition – longitudinal, time-based trends of change (including the lack thereof)
Composition – breaks down the data into the types that make up the whole
How do we convey the message?
Choosing the right chart presentation is key to conveying the message. Like a well-stocked workshop, we have many tools at our disposal for assembling the best finished product. Let’s take a quick look at the most popular tools in our toolbox.
Line Charts: used to track changes over time and to show the relationship between multiple variables.
Bar Charts: much like line charts, used to compare data over time – often for values in different categories – and to compare parts of a whole. There are three bar chart orientations available:
- Vertical – most often used when the units of time and/or categories are few
- Horizontal – most often used when the units of time and/or categories are many
- Stacked – used to show the parts of the whole and how they contribute to the overall trend
Pie Charts: for part-to-whole comparisons, where the proportions – not the magnitude – of the data is key. Together, the parts will represent 100% of the whole.
Area and Bubble Charts: when it is necessary to show the parts of the whole and the magnitude of their contribution to the whole.
Gauges: used to show progress toward an established goal.
Make the point
Using the right tool is key to helping convey the desired message. However, the effective use of color is the best way to drive the message home. Colors should be used to draw the eye to the point being made, helping it to be obvious to the consumer. Color has its logical elements: green often portrays positive data, red portrays negative data, and yellow the neutral data. Care should be given to the shades of the colors used to accommodate consumers with color-blindness.
In addition to color, placement is key. In instances where multiple charts are being presented, be sure to place the most important point in a position of prominence over the other data – either “front and center” or by dominant size (or both!). Within charts, data series placement is also important, depending on your focus. This is especially true for comparisons.
In many cases, chart consumers want and/or need to see the high-level data first, then the component parts that make up the data. When that is the case, it is important to provide them with drill-through capabilities. Drilling through allows them to select a specific segment of the data and see more detailed information about the component parts that comprise it. In some cases, there will be “multiple layers of the onion” to peel back, ending in specific, actionable data that they can use.
Little things that go a long way
Often neglected, but still important, is the supporting cast for a good chart. Chart creators have a responsibility to make it obvious as to what is being presented. This is greatly enhanced by proper use of headings, captions and legends in support of the chart, as well as by identifying the data source. Be clear and concise. Do not distract from the data itself, but leave no doubt as to the characteristics of the content. Too much information, including such items as an overstated institutional logo, can distract from the point being made.
In conclusion, understanding and applying these concepts should help you present your campus constituents with clear and concise charts. The charts, in turn, will clearly convey information to help improve the performance of your institution.