5 Common Sense Rules for Effective Visualizations

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Whether you’re writing a press release or a blog about your research, chances are you’ll be including an image or a visualization. If you’re including an image, I only have one suggestion for you: don’t put in a generic stock-photo. You know the kind I’m talking about. A lovely photo of a breaching whale, or a tropical beach, even though the work has absolutely nothing to do whatsoever with whales or beaches. While these are useful for click-bait, they perpetuate the myth that only charismatic megafauna and pretty places deserve protection. That’s not cool. It shows that you have no respect for your reader. If you can’t respect your audience and their intelligence to recognize when you’re throwing click-bait at them, then they will hold no respect for you, either.

Now if you’re including a visualization (i.e. chart or graph) in your press release/blog, I have much more advice for you! Namely:

  1. KISS
  2. Empower your readers
  3. Know your audience – be culturally-appropriate
  4. Color blindness, B&W printing, high-res, mobile
  5. Drive the point home:
    1. Redundancy
    2. Placement
    3. Size
    4. Highlights

Keep It Simple, Science-cat

First off: Yes, I do indeed refer to scientists/managers/policy-wonks/etc. as “science-cats.” Why? Because everyone likes cats, even artificial intelligence. Also, it’s way more fun to say than “people who use the scientific method to learn things and make decisions.” You, too, should use this phrase. In fact, I officially hereby grant you license to use this phrase anywhere and everywhere in perpetuity. You are welcome!

If you ever want to know what not to do in a visualization, check out WTF Visualizations. Those are some of the worst offenders I’ve ever seen. One of my favorite awful visualizations is this hot mess of disaster:


This visualizations aims (very ineffectively) to compare the cost of renting and home-ownership across the globe with that of New York City. Source: http://visual.ly/cost-housing-around-globe

The only comment on the visualization’s homepage states, “That's quite interesting, but I'm not completely sure I understood the Rent Index.” No surprise! I don’t get it either. It’s been over a month since I first saw this monstrosity, and I still don’t fully comprehend it. Notice that fine print in the lower-left corner? (It took me a few days to notice it…) There are actually two separate axes in this chart. Not only are the axes different, this visualization incorporates a bar chart, a line graph, a map, and random building outlines all in one. Don’t do that! Ever!

Keep your visualizations simple. Don’t make it a cluttered mess like this one. The simpler your visualization is, the easier and quicker it will be for your audience to learn from it.

Empower your readers

Think of a visualization as a petroglyph: it should tell a story.

Your visualization should provide your audience with more information in a quick glance than they could gain from reading a few sentences. People should see your visualization and walk away knowing more than they would from reading your abstract.

When I’m making visualizations I tend to print out a copy, hand it to my partner or a friend, and ask them to explain the visualization to me. If they can’t relay back to me the story I’m looking to tell, I tweak it. There’s also the pub test: show your work to a non-science-cat, ideally over a pint in a wood-paneled pub, and see what information they can glean from it. Whatever method you choose, just be sure to get feedback on draft visualizations before you go live with them. Your first visualization (just like your first academic paper, blog, or press release) is always a draft. There’s always room for improvement in even the best visualizations.

Know your audience

This one I can’t stress enough. You will likely need different versions of your visualization for different audiences. This is especially true for colors, shapes, and icons. In the USA, speed limits are almost always posted on rectangular signs. In the UK, they’re posted on circular signs. Wherever you are, though, the color red signifies “stop” while green signifies “go”. You must be aware of both local and global cultural meanings like these when designing something visual.

Whatever you do, do not reverse these meanings! Yes, I do need to say this because, yes, I have indeed worked on projects where people wanted to do this. Sure: red draws more attention than green, but that’s absolutely no excuse to attempt to reverse culturally-defined meanings in your visualization’s legend! (If you’re working on a project where someone wants to do this, let me know, and I’ll be more than happy to lambaste them for being ridiculous…)

A relevant anecdote courtesy of the New York Times: a philanthropy was working on a water purification system for use in developing areas without access to clean drinking water. They decided to make the prototype a military-inspired “sexy and sleek” dark black color. When tested locally in Kenya, the target users did not want to use the device. They asked, “why is it the color of death?” Obviously it’s not marketable to conflate safe drinking water with death. But upon learning more, the group reinvented the device in a “culturally neutral blue” fashion. This is a perfect example for how knowing your audience saves you both time and money. You won’t need to reinvent a product or a marketing campaign if you do your due diligence early on.

Color blindness, B&W printing, high-res, mobile

Approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women have some form of color blindness. There are plenty of tools out there that you can use to simulate color blindness to be sure your visualization is equally effective whether your audience can see the full color spectrum or not. There are event tools that suggest the colors to use for a colorblind audience.

Plenty of people still religiously print documents for reading, usually on black-and-white laser printers. Does your visualization make sense in grayscale? Make sure it does!

With the advent of high-resolution displays (e.g. Apple’s Retina displays on MacBooks and iPads, as well as newer smartphones) you’ll want to use a high-resolution version of your visualization on the internet. On an older/standard screen, measurements were often taken by how many pixels were occupied by the image. You might be accustomed to uploading images that are 500 pixels tall by 800 pixels wide. However, with high-resolution displays, this same image should occupy double or quadruple the pixels. As images are generally scaled on high-resolution devices, you need those extra pixels so the image stays “sharp.” This is especially true for text, where it becomes very difficult to read text in images that are not optimized for high-resolution displays.

Over half of traffic to the top 10,000 US-based websites comes from mobile devices. And that number is growing every year. For Pinterest, over 80% of their traffic is mobile. Make sure your visualization pops on a smartphone screen just like it does on a desktop. When you know your audience, you’ll know if you should focus on optimizing for a large iPad, a square-shaped Blackberry screen, or a 4.5-inch Android device.

Drive the point home

You want to be sure your visualization tells the story you want it to. Consider the placement of main points of interest in your visualization: is the supporting data buried amongst numerous non-significant results? You could highlight those results to draw the eye. Or, you could move those results front and center. You could even make separate visualizations that are grouped in presentations, allowing you to enlarge the “interesting” parts, while still providing real estate for the “boring” bits. Redundancy doesn’t hurt, either: if at first your audience doesn’t get it, there’s always a second chance.


Editor's note: This is the fourth blog in our series on "making your marine science matter" — a recent talk MARE gave at the 4th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC4). You may read the other blogs in this series by following the links below.

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