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.


Interactive: When Do Americans Leave For Work?

We don’t all start our work days at the same time, despite what morning rush hour might have you think.

Graphical perception – learn the fundamentals first

Before you dive into the advanced stuff – like just about everything in your life – you have to learn the fundamentals before you know when you can break the rules.

Watching the growth of Walmart – now with 100% more Sam’s Club

The ever so popular Walmart growth map gets an update, and yes, it still looks like a wildfire. Sam’s Club follows soon after, although not nearly as vigorously.

Think Like a Statistician – Without the Math

I call myself a statistician, because, well, I’m a statistics graduate student. However, the most important things I’ve learned are less formal, but have proven extremely useful when working/playing with data.