7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs

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7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs
By Nathan Yau - Jul 22, 2010 - Data Design Tips - Post on Twitter

Charts and graphs have found their way into news, presentations, and comics, with users from art to design to statistics. The design principles for these data graphics will vary depending on what you're using it for. Making something for a presentation? You'll want to keep it extremely simple and avoid using a lot of text. Designing a graphic for a newspaper? You'll have to deal with size constraints and try to explain the important parts of your graphic. However, whatever you're making your charts and graphs for, whether it be for a report, an infographic online, or a piece of data art, there are a few basic rules that you should follow. There's wiggle room with all of them, and you should think of what follows as more of a framework than a hard set of rules, but this is a good place to start for those just getting into data graphics.

Check the data

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Is it logarithmic. it's a guessing game for the reader. Explain what these encodings are supposed to indicate. your graph is weak. You might be surprised how many data entry typos you find in the spreadsheets people send you. Start with some simple graphs to see if there are any outliers or weird spikes.7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs http://flowingdata. or describing your graphic in a lead-in paragraph. so make sure it makes sense. they're just decoration. what fine gridlines you have there. in most cases. Label axes Oh look. Maybe it's a combination of both.com/2010/07/22/7-basic-rules-for-making-cha. Explain encodings Maybe you use a color scale to indicate magnitude or the size of a square to represent values. you'll want your value axis to start at zero. Data forms the foundation of charts and graphs. You can provide explanations in a variety of ways. Label your axes so that readers know what scale points are plotted on. directly labeling shapes.. If your data is weak. Also. incremental. This should be obvious.. Without labels or any explanation. Include units 2 of 9 7/23/10 8:20 PM . Verify anything that doesn't make sense. but the most common are providing a legend. Most likely he doesn't. or per 100 flushing toilets? Without axis labels. exponential. and don't assume the reader knows what everything means. I always assume it's that last one. Without your pointers.

Here's how it works. Always include where the data is from. you end up with circles that are way out of proportion. Include your sources This should go without saying. First. When you size circles by diameter. Again. Consider your audience 3 of 9 7/23/10 8:20 PM . Size circles and other two-dimensional shapes by area. unless it's a bar graph or something like that...com/2010/07/22/7-basic-rules-for-making-cha. the source can be specified in the copy. it makes your graphic more reputable. so you better get it right.7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs http://flowingdata. to the number of chickens that crossed the road. This does a couple of things. or if it's part of an article. and second. You'll also probably have the pleasure of seeing your work highlighted negatively on some nerdy blog. Include some units while you're at it. You can put it directly in a graphic. especially if you use bubble size to indicate a numeric value. Keep your geometry in check If your geometry is wrong. and that's a bad thing. it could mean anything from a percentage. to a volume. If you just leave it with naked numbers. this will be the first thing people call you on. you want to eliminate the need for any guesswork from the reader. those who are interested can dig deeper or fact check.

Finally. By no means are these rules absolute. but that's your call. and you'll be alright. You might also like. and nicely illustrated! July 22. like I said already.ws/yi 24 Comments (Add Yours) JanWillem Tulp Good tips. You should probably also avoid Comic Sans. In the end. take into account who and what your graphs and charts are for. There are to many bar charts that should be lines or columns and vice versa.com/2010/07/22/7-basic-rules-for-making-cha. don’t forget the ‘choose the right format’ though. Yahoo Charts Control Library Now Available What Simple Rules Should You Always Follow When Designing Infographics? Review: The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics Spread the joy tweets 282 retweet Like 47 Link: http://datafl. all of these rules can be broken for specific cases. 4 of 9 7/23/10 8:20 PM . You might design a graphic to be super-detailed for a poster that people can stare at for hours.. But if it's for a presentation. Subscribe to the RSS feed or follow @flowingdata on Twitter to stay updated on what's new in data visualization and infographics.7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs http://flowingdata. 2010 at 12:31 am | Reply Chrisvdberge Great tips. and design accordingly.. Do that. Because it's awesome. and you'll learn where you can bend with practice. you should keep the words to a minimum.. To put it simply: tell your story clearly and communicate the data accurately..

in a business setting. but yeah. This has become a pearl on my pearltree! :) 5 of 9 7/23/10 8:20 PM . 100% agree with you on that one. but on the computer screen it makes your graphs more difficult to read than “standard” graphs. “vs Forecast” or “vs Northern region” etc a good chart should answer this July 22. 2010 at 1:20 am | Reply John Munoz Tim Kent. July 22. Answer might be “vs Last Year”. Nathan. it’s great in real life. I wouldn’t say stay away from 3D all the time. Absolutely. Stay away from 3D..7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs http://flowingdata. 2010 at 11:25 am Kaizer Nice. it’s usually best to put the categories on the Y axis so that your readers don’t have to struggle to read the categories. John. July 22. 2010 at 12:42 am | Reply Tim Kent Great Post – only one i would add is “compared to what?” Try to always consider the context: “Sales were up 99%” – “compared to what?”. If you’re charting categorical data on a bar chart. July 22. Context gives graphs the ability to reveal insights. it’s typically a bad idea. great post! Some rules I think worth mentioning (and which I see violated quite a bit are) are: Bar charts should have an axis with a zero baseline. 2010 at 4:53 am | Reply Nathan Yau Thanks.com/2010/07/22/7-basic-rules-for-making-cha..

2010 at 2:03 am | Reply Nathan Yau @Noah – nice! July 22. (Sooooo hard to read ‘em sometimes!) July 22. Would love to see more people thinking like this. 2010 at 4:28 am | Reply Jonathan Miller Great clarity – love this post (as well as all of your content). This is a great list. You inspired me to (finally) post my short list of how to create good information visuals over at O’Reilly Answers. July 22. 2010 at 5:23 am | Reply Gail P It may seem obvious to those who read graphs easily (not me) but I would also appreciate 6 of 9 7/23/10 8:20 PM . Edward Tufte would be proud.. 2010 at 11:21 am | Reply Rusha Sams Very clear tips for creating better charts and graphs. He once said (and I am paraphrasing) that a chart without a source reference is a lie.com/2010/07/22/7-basic-rules-for-making-cha.7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs http://flowingdata. check out my master’s thesis on this very topic. Cheers.. Noah July 22. For an even deeper look at the design process of information visuals. July 22. 2010 at 1:57 am | Reply Noah Iliinsky Nathan. especially when they embed charts into PPt.

July 22. 2010 at 6:09 am | Reply Nathan Yau @Annie – I’m glad you like them :) July 22. It should be read by anybody before starting a chart or infographic. I can see it as %. I can see a decline... Or if you say that last year the score was 25 and now it’s 20. Thanks for your profound words on this important topic. This is clear and succinct. If you tell me it’s from a total of 100. I would encourage all statistic profs to incorporate this into their beginning stats courses and make it a requirement for all business courses. Bookmarked.com/2010/07/22/7-basic-rules-for-making-cha.7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs http://flowingdata. July 22. I wish this was presented to me years ago at the beginning. 2010 at 7:11 am | Reply Andrew Begin Love the fundamental nature of this. What is the average or last years results? And even with these in front of me I will struggle to fully comprehend the graph. 2010 at 9:47 am | Reply Chris 7 of 9 7/23/10 8:20 PM . 2010 at 5:29 am | Reply Annie Pettit Absolutely love the illustrations! Unique and memorable! July 22. 2010 at 11:22 am | Reply Traei From an individual that has used charts and graphs for years in the field of accounting. having a frame of reference to compare results to. July 22. you bring up excellent points here.

... links for 2010-07-22 « Boskabout Coffee Spoons › Rules Exist for a Reason VizThink Blog » Blog Archive » VizLinks | Visual Thinking Bookmarks for July 22nd 7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs | joelotz.net 7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs « The IT Blog Add Your Comment Name / required Mail / required. July 22. Bar graphs should be sized by area as well. unless it’s a bar graph or something like that. 2010 at 6:51 pm | Reply Nathan Yau @gabyu – glad it was helpful! July 22. Thanks for the nice lesson July 22. That’s not what you’re saying there with the word “unless”.” Um … that’s either wrong or just very poorly worded. area should win. That may be equivalent to sizing by height. “Size circles and other two-dimensional shapes by area. 2010 at 10:24 am | Reply gabyu Instant ⌘P then displayed to the team.com/2010/07/22/7-basic-rules-for-making-cha. 2010 at 9:34 pm | Reply Links to this post “7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs” | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day. but if there’s ever a difference between sizing a bar chart by height or by area.. kept private Comment Website Notify me of followup comments via e-mail 8 of 9 7/23/10 8:20 PM .7 Basic Rules for Making Charts and Graphs http://flowingdata.

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