Visual Design: Display Data Clearly


When I learned that I would have a few very special guests attending my visual design lecture this month, I redesigned my lesson plans.  While these lessons aren’t quite Slideshare-ready yet, I would like to share them with you over the next few days.  I promise to debut the new visual design Slideshare presentation before the end of January!

The new lessons focus on teaching my students 7 key rules for effective slide design.  Read rule number one: Slides Are Not Documents; rule number two: Apply The Picture Superiority Effect; rule number three: Slides Should Be Simple; and rule number four: Slides Must Have Unity.  Today, we take a look at the fifth rule:


We live in a data-saturated world.  Just as the results of a particular study can be muddled, slides containing data can be unclear.  The goal of presentation design is to display information, especially data, in a simple, clear, and easy-to-digest fashion.  Data must be clear in order for an audience to look at it, to process it, to digest it, and to remember it.

When we present to an audience, we may want to fill our slides with more data than they need so that – if they have a question – the question can be answered by sifting through mountains of data.  By doing this, our slides end up looking busy, confusing, and overwhelming…


Ironically, the slide above is talking about engaging customers to cut through clutter… However, the slide is so busy and cluttered that the audience can’t process the main idea in three seconds.  Heck, I can’t even process the main idea in ten seconds.

Yes, we can give our audience all of this information.  However, when we’re speaking, we typically use the data to support one main point.  I suggest including only the relevant data to support that main point on your slides and then putting all of your research, tables, graphs, and charts in document form to hand out (or to distribute digitally via email/Dropbox/flash drive).  That way, your audience has all of the information in case they want to fact-check you, but your slides still remain clear and simple.

Sometimes, we display data effectively, but we use the premade charts in Keynote or PowerPoint.  Without changing the typeface or colors, we end up with a hideous data visualization like the one you see here:


David McCandless says that data should be displayed with four principles in mind: 1) interestingness, 2) integrity, 3) form, and 4) function.  To learn more about his work, check out Information Is Beautiful or watch his TED Talk (one of my personal favorites) “The beauty of data visualization.”  McCandless believes in data, but he believes we should work to display it more clearly, effectively, and beautifully.


Image Credit

The experts agree that data should meet the qualifications McCandless describes above. Garr Reynolds advises against slapping every piece of research on a single slide and expecting our audience to figure things out.  He says, “We must not make the mistake of thinking that our data can speak for itself, no matter how convincing, obvious, or strong it may seem to us” (Source).  He suggests we look to Hans Rosling (a man David McCandless describes as his “master”) to see how data should be displayed.

Phil Waknell gives some additional advice, “Some [main points in a presentation] will require tables of data. These do not go on slides. I would simply print those tables and give them to the investor at the appropriate time. It’s far easier to understand tables of data on paper rather than on a big screen. What is more, on the screen I could then put a simple graph which illustrates a key data point from the printed table. This helps me to guide the investor’s attention a little. However, if I only showed the simple graph, the investor would not have enough detail to trust what I’m saying” (Source).

How do you display data on your slides?  Is your data clear and simple?