Applying basic design principles, Part 5: Defining what you want to accomplish with your visualization

This is the fifth in a series of articles that illustrate how basic design principles can improve information display. The previous article focused on how your audience can influence your chart design. Here, we’ll dig deeper into the chart as a method of communication, and the different purposes that it can serve.

Once you understand the audience and broader context for a visualization, it is time to dig deeper into the purpose of the visualization itself. What goals is it helping you to achieve? What are you trying to communicate? …


Applying basic design principles, Part 4: Defining the context and the audience for a data visualization

This is the fourth in a series of articles that illustrate how basic design principles can improve information display. The previous article focused on cleaning up the details of chart design. Here, we’ll talk about how to define the audience for your chart.

Black and white photo of a crowd of people
Black and white photo of a crowd of people
Start by defining the audience that you want to reach. Image source.

People often come to me wanting to know which visualization is the best one for their situation. Before you pick a chart type or visualization approach, it’s important to understand the context in which the chart will be used. …


Applying basic design principles, Part 2: Using clear formatting to support information display

This is the second in a series of articles that illustrate how basic design principles can improve information display. In the previous article, we looked at how whitespace can improve the overall clarity and readability of a restaurant menu. In the next installment, we will look at the details of chart design. Here, we’ll use small changes to whitespace and text hierarchy to improve the overall design of a data dashboard.

This example is an actual dashboard that I found online, redrawn and edited to anonymize the information:

This image shows a performance dashboard for an imaginary school district, with several charts and tables.
This image shows a performance dashboard for an imaginary school district, with several charts and tables.

This article focuses on the page layout and text hierarchy, to show how we can use whitespace and text headings to clarify the content of the page. It does not get into visualization choices and recommendations. The goal here is not to re-design or completely change the dashboard, but to work with its existing contents to improve the visual display with a few minimally-invasive changes. At the moment, it’s hard to tell how the page is organized, or what sequence the information should have. A few small tweaks will clarify the page layout and make the dashboard much…


Applying basic design principles, Part 2: Using clear formatting to support information display

This is the second in a series of articles that illustrate how basic design principles can improve information display. In the previous article, we looked at how whitespace can improve the overall clarity and readability of a restaurant menu. In the next installment, we will look at the details of chart design. Here, we’ll use small changes to whitespace and text hierarchy to improve the overall design of a data dashboard.

This example is an actual dashboard that I found online, redrawn and edited to anonymize the information:

This image shows a performance dashboard for an imaginary school district, with several charts and tables.
This image shows a performance dashboard for an imaginary school district, with several charts and tables.

This article focuses on the page layout and text hierarchy, to show how we can use whitespace and text headings to clarify the content of the page. It does not get into visualization choices and recommendations. The goal here is not to re-design or completely change the dashboard, but to work with its existing contents to improve the visual display with a few minimally-invasive changes. At the moment, it’s hard to tell how the page is organized, or what sequence the information should have. A few small tweaks will clarify the page layout and make the dashboard much…


Applying basic design principles, Part 1: Using the space between items to make clearer design

This is the first in a series of articles that illustrate how basic design principles can improve information display. The next installment will apply some of these same principles to a visualization dashboard.

Image for post
Image for post
Common punctuation marks. Image source.

“How do you use whitespace?”

This is one of the most frequent questions that I get as a designer, especially from people who need to create information-dense displays like a dashboard or interactive display. Whitespace is the blank area between items on the page, and it is very important in helping information feel clear, organized, and accessible.

Whitespace is the punctuation between visual elements. In the same way that a pause between notes is sometimes most important part of a piece of music — allowing the listener to really hear, absorb, and respond to the notes — the space between visual elements can set the tone for how a user feels about an information display. Used well, white space gives readers the opportunity to pause and take a breath. …


Applying basic design principles, Part 3: Details of chart display

This is the third in a series of articles that illustrate how basic design principles can improve information display. Previous articles focused on whitespace and establishing page hierarchy, and the next will discuss different considerations for choosing between chart types. Here, we’ll get into the details of how to optimize a chart display.

“Good information design works like a tour guide, telling the user what matters most and where to go from here.”

Every design system is the result of competition between different constraints. You may need to adhere to specific space constraints or charting libraries, support a particular kind of information, or satisfy a strong brand or aesthetic. A good design solution balances these competing influences to support a specific user task. For a chart, the primary task is analytical: a user must be able to read and understand the data. For this reason, data visualization design prioritizes quantitative accuracy and emphasizes clarity and legibility over other considerations. …


Charts and graphs have a job to do: the secret is knowing when they are (and aren’t) on the job

As a data vis designer living in both the art and data worlds, I sometimes hear that I should “just go wild” or “let my hair down” to produce more exciting, visually engaging graphics that feel more fun. On the other hand, I also hear that data visualization is a serious discipline with a purpose, where clarity and accurate interpretation trump all other concerns.

So, which is it? (Spoiler: maybe both!)

Image for post
Image for post
Some of my recent explorations in playful data encodings. Photo credit: Branden Gunn.

The difference between data vis and data art

To me, data vis is like a guide dog: staid, disciplined, and faithfully focused on the task at hand. Data vis has a job to do. Data art is more like a puppy: energetic, enthusiastic and playful, fearlessly exploring the possibilities of the medium and the moment — an expression of pure, kinetic joy. The guide dog and the puppy can even be the same animal, at different times. …

Erica Gunn

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