We are data visualization geeks—and proud of it. Last week, we got to geek out with some of the best in the biz at our webinar. Scott Berinato, senior editor of the Harvard Business Review, shared words of wisdom on what makes good data visualization and why it matters. If you missed it, not to worry—we've got your covered. You can view the entire webinar video here, and in the meantime, we've provided three key takeaways from Scott's presentation.
1. Good viz works, and it matters.
If your hotel room is on fire, your brain will process a visual map faster than a detailed paragraph explaining how to exit the building—the image will be much more useful in that crucial moment. The way we ingest visuals is much more effective than the way we ingest text. In other words, good viz works.
Not only does good visualization work, but it really matters. It matters to business, and it matters to your career. According to Scott, companies that invest in better visual communication will do better than companies that do not. Similarly, the individuals who invest in improving even a little at visual communication will be more successful and have more career options than those who do not.
You can tell a story about your data when you present it well visually. Scott told the story of a colleague who created a chart that disproved the common assumption that those who travel more have more stress. The visual demonstrated that stress actually decreases with increased travel. The colleague presented this chart to a client, and not only did that single visual change the initiatives of the client, but it also resulted in his career really taking off. People started coming to him for help in presenting their own data—all thanks to a powerful visual.
2. What makes a good chart?
Now we know good viz truly does matter, but what exactly makes it good? When you need to communicate an idea, you can’t just make a chart for the sake of making a chart.
When looking at visuals, we often get stuck thinking about the colors, the labels, the chart type, etc. However, simply getting the rules right does not make a good chart—because even if you do get them right, the idea you want to convey might not come through.
We can also get hung up on a pretty chart—it’s eye candy. However, after eating candy, we are left wanting nutritional value. After looking at a beautiful chart, we are left wanting substance and understanding.
So what matters most? Context—what you are trying to say, where you are going to say it, and to whom. If you get your context right, you’ll have a good chart. You can have many different visuals around the same data set. The key is knowing what you are trying to say and knowing what message your visual conveys. It’s like taking photographs of the same building from different angles and fields of view—they convey completely different stories.
So worry less about the rules, and worry more about setting context. Ask yourself questions such as:
If you take time to set context, design questions will take care of themselves. You’ll be able to make the ideal chart that has high contextual awareness and excellent design execution, making it usable and consumable.
3. Unicorns don’t exist—so don’t try to be one.
You might think Scott is asking for the impossible. You have to be an expert on the subject matter, know your data, be able to manipulate the data, and develop superb design skills. But in reality, Scott isn’t asking you to be a unicorn. Instead, he advocates for a team approach.
Historically, data visualization was a team effort, with everyone contributing based on their specific strength. Then Excel came along and made it so easy for a single person to create a chart that convenience trumped the team approach.
According to Scott, we need to re-embrace the team approach—because the results are well worth it. Let someone be the subject matter expert. Let someone else do the data manipulation. And leave the design to those who actually know what they’re doing.
Give it a try. Create good data visualization that tells the story you want to the people who need to hear it. Lucidchart makes it easy to get started with all types of visuals.
For more insightful advice from Scott, check out his book, Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations.
If you'd like to delve deeper into this topic, we've created an e-book outlining six steps you need to improve your charts, graphs, and other visualizations. Check it out!