Make Your Data Visual by Eamon Spelman from the Limerick Institute of Technology LIT

Using the example of text abbreviations and acronyms being misunderstood by parents lecturer Eamon Spelman, lecturer on the Graphic Design Communication programme at the Limerick School of Art and Design (LSAD) / Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) highlighted the importance of understanding audience as central to achieving effective data visualisation.

Speaking at the latest lunchtime webinar for the ICBE Business Excellence Skillnet Eamon further pointed out that we need to understand that the context may be different for many people and how they will interpret data will vary widely saying “We need to identify their needs and how they make sense of the data”.

Using another example of road signs Eamon explained that outside of the functional components of the sign that its needs to legible etc, people use the signs for different purposes and all this needs to be factored into the design.

Cultural differences also play an important part in visualisation and design with Eamon emphasizing the role of colour and differences in term of association.  Yellow is associated with happiness in western/American cultures with the Chinese using Red.  Eamon also used the Information Is Beautiful colours in culture graphic as an example of how this complex and varied data can be presented effectively as a wheel.

As many tools making it easy to create charts Eamonn advised take a step by step and inquisitive approach encouraging people to ask “What kind of information are you working with?  Start with bar chart or line graph to get an understanding of the information.  Research how have others visualised similar information.”

With some tools there is also a temptation to include irrelevant and distracting elements, which are frequently there by default.  In eliminating theses Eamon recommended:

  • Keep things simple as it will make it easier to read details.
  • Remove all meaningless elements; unnecessary lines, distracting boxes, meaningless colour variations, distracting backgrounds.
  • Make an accurate presentation of data.

He demonstrated the careful and selective use of colour in infographics emphasising that colour should have a functional purpose in helping to interpret the data from drawing attention to something to possibly eliciting an emotional reaction.  Some other common mistakes including 3D charts that can cross over on other elements, background colours obscuring charts, confusing x/y axis and not using legends.  Taking a critical and challenging eye means taking time to evolve the best visualisations rather than default ones that come with a software package. 

“Initially, work in black/grey and then introduce colour to draw attention.  Colour should be used to code data or alert your audience to issues/ successes at a glance” commented Eamon on evolving a design.  

Reflecting fundamental design principles Eamon added “ Clear organisation leads to clear communication. When considering details and supporting elements – simplicity is key.  It’s the data that people need to look at.”

Eamon also reminded the group that not everyone reads a document from top left to bottom right with many people scanning and this needs to be factored into the design especially if an infographic style.

Fonts are also an over looked element with Eamon advising people to avoid illustrative or script based typefaces such as Comic Sans and Snell Roundhand.  Pragmatically fonts should be easy to read at small sizes and the variety of weights (plain, bold, italic etc.) used as necessary for a presentation.  They can also be used for emphasis and also to illustrate hierarchy of importance.  “Sans works better on a screen” added Eamon. 

In closing Eamon shared some practical tips saying “Test your data design on others (volunteers or colleagues).  Someone else looking at your data chart can spot things you didn’t even consider.  Good data visualisation is defined as functional, intuitive, user-oriented, innovative, useful and above all honest.”

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