Visualize Better Looking Data for Your Library

Have you ever written an annual report, PowerPoint slide, or article and thought, "This could really use some sort of visual." But then when you started plotting out what you wanted to show and how you were going to show it, you hit a roadblock and thought, "Oh my gosh, I am not a graphic designer." Well, think again, because even the most design-impaired people can make a pretty snazzy infographic or chart with the right tools and some basic design principles.

As a not-so-design-savvy person myself, I recently attended WebJunction's excellent webinar, Data Visualization for the Rest of Us: A Beginner's Guide. The webinar was presented by Linda Hofschire, a research analyst at the Library Research Service at the Colorado State Library. Hofschire's sensible tips and tool recommendations left me raring to start infographic-ing (is that a word?) everything. I recommend watching the full webinar, but here are some of the highlights.

Why Data Visualization?

"Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice," according to Stephen Few, founder of Perceptual Edge, an information visualization consultancy company.

This was just one of the interesting quotes Hofschire shared with us during the webinar; I really think it speaks to the power of numbers. But for those people who doze off if they see more than four numbers in a row, infographics and data visualizations are a great way to grab attention.

Hofschire noted that not all infographics are effective, however. Some infographics have visuals that don't correlate to data, or it isn't abundantly clear how the visuals and data connect from first glance. If the design gets in the way of understanding the numbers, the infographic doesn't work. A good infographic enhances your understanding of the numbers presented.

Some Simple Tweaks to Your Existing Charts

Are you already using Excel to create charts or an infographic tool for your reports? Great! But could they use a makeover? Hofschire walked us through a few different ways to enhance the charts you're already using.

  1. Put numbers into context. When you throw out a bunch of large numbers, it can seem very abstract to your readers. You can give meaning to these numbers, however, by putting them into context with something familiar to your readers. For example, Hofschire showed an infographic that that stated there are "7 times as many libraries in Colorado as Starbucks stores" with an image showing seven buildings to one coffee cup.

    Starbucks infographic
  2. Choose the appropriate chart. Pie charts are fun, but they're not always the best format for your data. If there are way too many categories or you're representing very small sizes of data, it can be difficult to read the pie chart. Hofschire also encourages staying away from using 3D charts, because the three-dimensional aspect only distracts from your data.
  3. Simplify and establish a clear focal point. The busier a chart is, the harder it is for readers to figure out what numbers they should be paying attention to.

    Crazy MLS chart
  4. Don't make people work too hard for information. This point sort of relates to the previous one. If you're presenting too much information or showing visuals that are too allegorical, your audience will have a hard time understanding your point.

A Few Basic Design Principles

Hofschire outlined a few straightforward design principles to follow when assembling your visualization.

  • First, you should keep your infographic or chart as simple as possible. The more white space you have, the better.
  • Next, you must show rather than tell. Remember the libraries to Starbucks example? The building icons versus the single coffee cup tells a powerful story.
  • Finally, you should seriously consider what fonts or colors to use for your graphic. Hofschire recommends sticking to a single color and using different gradients of it with black or gray for background or details. Remember that crazy MLS soccer bar chart above? Don't do that. And the same goes for fonts: stick with a single, easy-to-read font and distinguish headers or major details using larger sizes, bold, or underline. Don't use a mishmash of fonts to make a point.

Here's a great example of a chart from the Center for an Urban Future that incorporates all of these guidelines:

Center for Urban Future chart

Some Handy Tools

Hofschire recommended three tools for creating charts or infographics, two of which we have in the TechSoup catalog and one that's free!

  • Microsoft PowerPoint: I really like the idea of using PowerPoint for creating visuals. It has really great built-in tools, it's easy to use, and most people are familiar with it. If you're just getting your feet wet in the data visualization world, Hofschire says PowerPoint is the way to go. (Get it here via TechSoup.)
  • Adobe Illustrator: It requires a bit of a learning curve, but it is incredibly powerful and is what Hofschire's department uses for its infographics (get it here via TechSoup).
  • Piktochart: This is a freemium, online tool that can help you create professional-looking graphics without professional design skills. Hofschire noted that Piktochart offers templates, which takes a lot of the color, font, and visual decisions out of your hands.

TechSoup is sharing the love of data for the entire month of February. Check out some of our upcoming and recorded webinars on data visualization tools and look out for even more blogs and resources.

Is your library creating infographics or fancy charts? Tell us what tools you're using in the comments.