To find the first installment of this series (oh so long ago!), you can find it here
One of the beauties of visualisation lies in the fact that it's up to eight times easier for the human brain to understand data when it's presented visually as opposed to as text. And the history of using graphics to explain and aid understanding of relatively granular data is well documented; in fact, Andy Cotgreave (Tableau's chief evangelist) has spoken and written a lot about this aspect, and it's well worth checking out his (http://100yrsofbrinton.tumblr.com/, http://www.tableau.com/learn/webinars/100-years-data-visualization-its-time-stop-making-same-mistakes)
The second post in this series will explore chart and visualisation types, and the things which these bring to style guides in general. Further, I'll talk about examples of why this is a good practice to promote within a business or a department, and some caveats on implementation.
If you're reading this post, I'd imagine you realise how important the application of thinking about the business questions to be answered using charts of visualisation types, and how being aware of the purpose of these elements is what adds real value and punch to the work that you produce.
The running message along this entire series is the Cotgreave-ism "It depends" - Because it always, always, always does.
It depends on so many small variables that anyone who works in or with data should be aware of; purpose, message, audience, data structure... All things which are limitations and factors which help to chisel your block of wood into a meaningful piece of work.
What makes a guiding people on chart choices so important?
Layout and how charts should be explained when presenting is also in this sort of guide in some cases, and this can be applied when thinking about how to create better visuals and how to present them. An example of such a style guide (found online) is here http://design.sunlightlabs.com/projects/Sunlight-StyleGuide-DataViz.pdf
A key aspect of the Sunlight Style Guide pack is the detail it goes into - and creating a cheat sheet, document or even simply presenting a resource such as this helps to hone the thinking process of not only yourself, but those around you as well.
A chart guideline pack allows you to;
- Give direction to the designers, practitioners and analysts who you're working with
- Helps to encourage a unanimous "one company" facet to your business, especially if you're able to work with the marketing teams on this sort of thing (will expand on this shortly)
- Means that the charts created by your own firm and team are instantly recognisable
These can also be applied as general points to consider when thinking of style guides in general, but in the case of charts and visualisations, they're important in different ways. Giving direction to the user will help them understand the purpose of different charts and begin to give them an idea of when to use which charts, the message which goes out when they're used and most importantly, offer tweaks to make their key narrative pop. Much of this can be using colour, labelling and annotation - but that's something we'll cover in another post.
Why is this good practice to promote within an enterprise?
A lot of this comes down to segmenting chart types - Not everyone has time to be a data visualisation connoisseur, as much as they could/should; what a guide allows is the understanding of how and when certain chart types or visualisation types can be used.
For instance, when can a pie chart be used?
What is the purpose of using an area chart over a line chart?
The more these questions develop, and different ways & approaches to visualising data then the more handy the so-called "best practice" guides become; particularly when you can answer specific "It depends" answers with the confidence that what's being
I find that this cheat sheet is an excellent place to start to understand how to "classify" charts.
The bottom line is that the use cases within each enterprise, business and team will be different. If a team has a particular need for charts over periods of time for instance, then they naturally start at the line chart - but what other ways of visualising the same message could they use?
Similarly, if a team often shows part-to-whole relationships using a pie chart - how many segments in their pie? Is there a more elegant solution which makes the message instantly recognisable?
Things to Consider
This is where we get to a few caveats - It's difficult to have this brainstorm without
a) understanding the business you're in
b) understanding the consumers of such a style guide or cheat sheet and
c) how restrictive you want to be on the way that the users are being when creating visualisations.
This works it way into a key question when developing such a guide; how much formatting & freedom do you wish the user to have when using these guides templates?
Do you want them to have a pre-build canvas, almost a wizard?
Do you want a structure, and allow the user to fill in the blanks?
Or is it simply a case of, here is our branding for the header, footer & banner - Don't forget to add date/time of update.
How can this be developed & what could next steps be?
And the answer, once again, is it depends. But these are questions that a Centre of Excellence can approach & answer - Particularly when thinking about developing content & understanding it's roll in a wider roll out. (My go-to Centre of Excellence gurus are the wonderful Pauls (Banoub & Chapman, as well as the effervescent Fi Gordon - Hit them up for their experience as CoE experts!)
My advice from my very limited exposure & experience in this field is to think about the question that is attempting to be answered. In every enterprise, no matter how big or small, there are different needs & options to consider. For me, if a presentation style guide exists within a marketing department or similar, they can be the first port of call for design advice. Then, understand how the tools for data visualisation (from Power BI, Tableau, Qlik or even Excel) are being used - And how that can be improved.
Whilst data visualisation can be a fluid process of inspiration & iteration, corporations often need time to get used to such a way of thinking. Building style guides which help users understand charts is simply invaluable - and can be the stepping stone to thinking about data visualisation as a field to consider as a whole.
In the next instalment (much, much sooner than this, I promise!) I'll be looking at iconography - and how this can be implemented as part of a style guide or centre of excellence.
Please reach out to me on thoughts, feedback and comments.
Thanks for reading!