The design and presentation of your charts and graphs should clearly and effectively communicate the message you need to get across.
But many visualisations produced in business and elsewhere actually do the opposite. They make it more difficult for the reader to understand what is being shown.
Why do we have this problem?
Unfortunately, in general, mainstream education doesn’t provide training in communicating numbers.
These skills are taught in some courses at some colleges, and there are several training opportunities available online, including my Communicating Numbers course.
But, most people receive little, if any, training in presenting numerical information. So, many creators of tables, charts and graphs are oblivious to the principles of effective design.
Another problem is the abundance of formatting features and graph types in popular software: Many of which encourage the user to complicate the display, instead of simplifying it to help the reader to understand the data.
Many tables and charts therefore look great – at first glance. They have a great visual impact. But do they communicate effectively? No!
What’s worse, people see these ineffective visualisations and they replicate the design: Believing visual impact is the most important element of the display; or feeling that they need to showcase their technical or artistic abilities.
All of this reduces the ability to communicating clearly and accurately.
The use of 3D charts and graphs
By way of example, one of the most popular, but worst offending options available in current software, is the ability to create 3D charts.
3D frequently distorts the data, making the chart look more complex than it is – the opposite of what you’re aiming for.
Look at the chart below. What values do each column represent?
Many people will read this as just over 4, just over 9 and just over 14.
In fact, the numbers are 5, 10 and 15. (Try it yourself.)
And what about this one? Any guesses at the values of the green series at the front?
(For the curious they are 2, 4 and 7. Who knew?)
Could a similar distortion of the values cause problems when you present your numeric data?
So, what should you do?
Always remember the potential issues of reduced clarity and meaning when using the visually exciting options in modern software (including 3D).
And consider the design and presentation of your charts so that they clearly and effectively communicate the message they’re supposed to.
How can you do that?
Basically, keep it simple. Never use 3D, and if an element on the chart isn’t data or something that help explain that data, delete it.