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Beyond the Bar Chart: Impact of Data Visualization

By Kristen Downs, Graphics Specialist

Researchers face a constant challenge: how to deliver large amounts of data in only a handful of slides that can be easily digested by various decision-makers within a client’s team.

Page after page of bar charts, pie charts and tables serve their purpose in presenting a study’s findings, but we are increasingly called upon to find creative, impactful ways to present the ultimate “so what.” Infographics continue to grow in popularity as a powerful means of displaying the story, but they don’t always fit inside a project’s given budget and timeline… or a PowerPoint slide’s size constraints.

We need to think beyond a bar chart and explore how infographics can inspire new, effective data visualization methods for reports.

Successfully combining the data that charts provide with the visual punch of graphics requires a deft touch. Too much information and imagery on a slide undermines the goal of quickly grasping its main point, while too little leaves the reader asking, “Is that all there is?”

To strike the perfect balance, first consider your audience. A client team comprised of seasoned researchers can delve straight into the implications of a research project, while less experienced teams may need to be walked through the results at a slower pace.

Choose graphics that tell your unique story in a way that can still be quickly understood by any reader. Everyone can easily grasp the concept of a generic person icon to represent a respondent, but consider taking your imagery a step further if possible. Did you talk specifically to moms, construction workers, students or bankers? Find an image to represent those specific qualifications and you have instantly upgraded the readability of your results.

Next, treat every element on each slide in your presentation as an opportunity to merge the power of images with the data being presented. Why settle for typing out the name of a company in a generic font when you can insert its logo instead? Can you substitute a dollar sign image to represent sales instead of using a bar chart? Are you conducting a study on cycling? Try turning that pie chart into the spokes of a wheel. Creative visualization of your results not only helps engage readers, but also increases their retention of the information being presented.

Using graphics isn’t the only way to improve a report’s data visualization. Vary the presentation of the items on a slide to help draw attention to aspects you want to emphasize. Consider incorporating one of these four strategies:

1) Color: Perhaps the most widely recognized means of emphasis, using a bright and/or contrasting color clearly brings that text or object to the forefront.

2) Form: On a slide consisting primarily of rectangular shapes such as bars or tables, using a circular shape such as a pie chart or rounded callout box highlights an area of emphasis. The reader’s eye will instantly be drawn to the item that stands out from the rest.

3) Size: When everything on a slide is the same size, it’s easy for the reader’s gaze to skim over the contents in one lump sum. Considering enlarging the most important takeaway to make it pop.

4) Position: Try isolating a key finding with ample white space separating it from the rest of the slide content. Sometimes a little breathing room is all it takes to stand out from the crowd.

Effective data visualization comes in many shapes and sizes. Integrating some new strategies in your next presentation can have significant impact on the client’s understanding of the results and facilitate easier decision-making for them.

 

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