The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Data Visualization

One of the most common uses for digital signage, and signage in general, is expressing data in a visual format. Whether you’re comparing your brand to your competitors in advertising, or presenting quarterly data to the board of directors, one way or another you’re eventually going to find yourself staring at a huge spreadsheet and trying to figure out how to make it easily digestible.

good bad ugly in data visualizationLet’s start out with a look at what not to do. It might seem tempting to use a relevant shape or image as a basis for your graph. But unless you’re thinking of a pie-shaped pie chart, save your creativity for other areas, or you could end up with a monstrosity like THIS.

An attempt to compare the death toll in a variety of disasters combined with the graph-maker’s patriotism in a way that turns out to be confusing, unreadable, and frankly ugly. The lesson here, of course, is to choose a style of graph that’s functional and streamlined.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to be boring. If you have limited time, of course, sticking to simple, tried-and-true graphs might be your best bet. There’s nothing wrong with a pie chart or a bar graph–just make sure you’re using them for the right purpose.  The components of your pie chart should always add up to 100%, and bar graphs are best for showing the difference between several distinct categories.  (For example, a bar graph would be a great way to show the difference between sales of three different products, but if you’re showing earning trends, use a line graph instead.)

If you want to get more creative, though, make sure you’re coming up with a new and useful way to express your data. One of my favorite examples of an unconventional graph is this one, one of many ways that Nate Silver expresses the potential election outcomes.

The graph seen here is brilliant for a couple of reasons. First, it takes a concept that many people have trouble understanding (the math behind the presidential election) and expresses it in a simple way. The graph represents the election almost as a literal race, showing a clear “finish line” right in the middle of New Hampshire, with closer states in the middle and states with more certainty on either end. States with lots of electoral votes are a longer part of the “path,” and those with fewer votes are smaller.  And what I took a whole paragraph to explain, the graph explains in just a few words.

Whether you choose tried and true or new and improved, make sure that your graph gets your audience closer to understanding, not farther from it.

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