Displaying Data as Efficiently as Possible

Posted to Design  |  Nathan Yau

The above picture isn’t totally related, but I just had to put it up. It’s so amusing. A family of five plus groceries on one motorcycle! I think there’s room for one more on the handle bars.

So in efforts to make the above picture relevant…

If I’ve learned anything during my internship, it’s how to display as much information as possible in a small amount of space. Two things have helped me in trying to achieve New York Times graphics department worthiness:

  • Decide what data / information is important
  • K.I.S.S. — Keep it simple, stupid. (The Office, Thursdays on NBC)

Decide What Data is Important

When you get a large data set, your first impulse might be to show all of it. For some cases, like exploratory data analysis (EDA), this is what you want. However, when you’re trying to show off results or display some kind of idea, then you might not need to point to all 100,000 values in your data set. Instead, evaluate all the data you have and then ask yourself what interesting thing in the data you’re trying to show.

Keep it Simple

Once you’ve established what the point is, make sure your graphic draws attention to that point. Don’t clutter with giant labels or overly bright colors that overpower your graphic’s main idea. For example, if you look at a bar graph, I don’t think the labels should be the first thing you notice. Rather, you should notice the bars, the real meat of the graphic, first and then recognize the labels second.

Oh, and don’t forget about white space.

Super busy graphics are just plain hard to read. Let the data breathe.

I guess my main point is that you can try to display as much information as possible in a small amount of space, but if you’re not careful and put too much, your motorcycle will tip over. See what I did there the whole motorcycle idea? You know, full circle. Circle of life. Hakuna matata. Oh forget it.


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