A lot is said these days about data visualization, but it’s not new: print media has been presenting data for years. I’m a long time subscriber to National Geographic, and a cursory browse through some of the latest editions threw up this simple example of a nicely designed (but alas badly photographed) infographic, about tuna populations worldwide. The online interactive version is here.
Three things strike me about this example, and these are true of so many other data visualizations out there.
Firstly, the text is designed for reading, not presenting, which means that there is a greater range of text sizes than you would normally see in PowerPoint. The headline looks to me about 35 points while much of the text is only around 10. PowerPoint defaults assume everything is being presented in front of a audience, which is fair enough for a presentation package. But for being read on screen or in print, much of the text should really be smaller than 14 points, and there should be much more of a distinction between headline and paragraph text size. If we did this more, we would have more space on the page which would make our work a lot more attractive right away, and we would lose nothing in terms of readability.
Secondly, colour is only used to make a point, not just for the sake of it. New PowerPoint themes are structured more around complementary rather than contrasting colours, but there is a tendency to want each series of a chart, for example, to be in a contrasting colour and this is often what I’ve seen in research deliverables. But if the colours themselves are not telling us something, we would be better off using shades of the same colour rather than distracting the viewer with variation that does not give us information. Instead, for example, of using contrasting brand colours throughout a presentation, how about using white-on-colour (or colour-on-white) versions of the logos to distinguish the brands, and a single strong contrasting colour to highlight what’s interesting about the chart? On the interactive, yellow is the only colour on the page and it very effectively draws the eye to what’s different about that particular type of tuna.
Thirdly, simple repetitive presentation allows the viewer to take meaning from the size and shape of what they are seeing. Seven miniature world maps positioned in one column are easy to interpret, meaning that the eye is drawn towards the differences, ie the location in the world’s oceans of each type of fish. It’s easy to look at even though there’s quite a lot of information. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a PowerPoint slide which has seven maps of the world on it: it would be considered overcrowding. But if we keep in mind that it’s for reading, not viewing on a big screen, and it’s designed right, it doesn’t look too busy at all.