FEATURE11 January 2013

Top tips


Our expert contributors offer rules to live by for researchers wanting to brush up on their data design skills.

top tips experts

Clockwise from top left: Coca-Cola’s Stan Sthanunathan, David McCandless, TNS chief creative officer Martin Lambie-Nairn, City University’s Jo Wood and DataMarket’s Hjalmar Gislason

Research still rules, ok!

Data visualisation is 80% research, 20% design, according to Information is Beautiful’s David McCandless. “If you skip on the early research stage and you move onto the design prematurely, you’ll be flailing around trying to make something work, to make the story surface. You will lose so much time doing that.”

What’s the story?

The most effective visualisations know what story they want to tell, and let the story dictate the visuals. Clever new visualisation styles might look nice, says DataMarket’s Hjalmar Gislason, “but I’m going to bet that 90% of the time one of the existing, well-known ones” – like pie charts or bar graphs – “will do a better job of conveying the story.”

Know your audience

Data visualisation means different things to different people. Like Maria Popova, editor of Brain Pickings. In a Businessweek article she wrote: “Data visualisation has nothing to do with pie charts and bar graphs… It’s a different way to look at and think about data.” So make sure your deliverables are aligned with expectations.

Less is more

As Coca-Cola’s Stan Sthanunathan notes in Telling tales, there’s a world of difference between a fact-based presentation and a fact-filled one. Resist the temptation to cram as many elements as you can into your visualisation. If it doesn’t add to the story, leave it out.

That applies to text too

“Some people forget that in a data visualisation, the text itself is a graphical element,” says McCandless. “That means it should be pared down to be as short as possible and optimised so that every word contributes to the overall meaning of the piece.”

Keep in line

“If you look at any well designed piece of work, it’s always built on a good layout,” says Ipsos Mori’s Ian Jarvis. “It makes such a difference to have things nicely lined up and well spaced out.” Design grids and guides are scaffolding – there to help build something beautiful rather than constrain creativity.

Be consistent

“Creativity is nothing without discipline,” says TNS creative director Martin Lambie-Nairn. Pick your colour palettes and your fonts and stick to them. “Font size and style and colour clashes can destroy any good design you’ve got,” warns Jarvis.

You can’t do everything

It’s rare to find one person with the design, data and technology skills needed to produce stunning data visualisations. But each of these skillsets are needed, says City University’s Jo Wood. The focus, then, should be on building strong teams in each area and getting them to collaborate.