Pew data visualization example

An example of a data visualization showing the growth of the U.S. population. Courtesy of Pew Research Center

Data visualization is communications through charts, graphs and other types of information graphics.

Visualization can help public relations professionals communicate data more clearly and effectively. Endless rows and columns on spreadsheets are far too difficult to grasp for normal human beings. Text explaining data is often messy, unclear and usually boring.

Creating visuals to depict data helps an audience understand the numbers faster and better. With well-designed visuals, the audience can grasp insights that were not obvious to them before and incorporate those insights in their decision-making.

Visualize the Benefits

Consumers, journalists and other PR audiences are inundated with information. PR communications that include data visualizations and infographics stand out and rise above text-only articles and posts. A well-designed graphic can prompt an editor to publish your press release rather than a competitor’s.

With the rise of “big data,” data visualizations are more useful than ever. However, a hastily produced image won’t suffice and may even misinform or confuse viewers. Careful research and design are crucial for developing a visual that is eye-catching, informative and factually accurate.

Data visualizations – better known as charts and graphs — don’t have to be extremely sophisticated to get their message across or be overwhelmingly beautiful. In fact, simply designed graphics are often the most effective. Aesthetics are important, of course, but some designers create beautiful graphics that fail to communicate the message well.

Choosing Chart-Making Software

There are many different software packages available to automatically create charts from data sets in spreadsheets or databases. Some like Tableau are expensive and powerful, enabling creation of entire dashboards containing an amazing variety of graphics.

At the other end of the spectrum, Google Charts is free and easy to use even by non-technical folks, but limited in the types of charts it can construct. Visual.ly and Canva are both positioned as simple-to-use toolsets for building impressive charts in many styles.

ChartJS and DS3 are open source libraries of charting elements requiring some programming skills. Both require knowledge of JavaScript to create charts. The DS3 charting elements can create most any type of chart while ChartJS is limited to six types of charts. Fusion Charts is a long-favored automated graphing package that also uses JavaScript.

Excel, the spreadsheet software, can be used to create the basic types of charts for PR communications.

There are also many other graphing packages, some designed to construct only one or two types of complex charts or maps. It’s important for PR departments and agencies to choose and use graphing software that best matches their specific purposes and technical abilities. The most powerful graphing packages are usually not the best choice for beginners without programming experience. For PR purposes, it’s usually best to start with basic graphing software.

Caution: None of the software packages are as easy to use as they claim. Graphing neophytes may want to select a graphing package, but outsource graph creation initially to an experienced designer.

Word-oriented PR practitioners can adopt the Visual Analysis Best Practices published by Tableau to create data visualizations that are both attractive and informative.

Key tip: All effective charts start with a good question. It’s easy to become overwhelmed or distracted by the vast amount of data now available. To stay on focus, define your audience and their questions. What question do you want the graphic to answer? Ascertain the graphic’s purpose and select the data that serves that purpose.

Choosing Chart Types

Using the appropriate chart type is an absolutely essential element of data visualization.

For showing trends over time, line charts, area charts and bar charts are best. Place the time on the X axis and the amount being measured on the Y axis. Line charts do not show the combined amount being measured. For that, use area or bar charts. Area charts show each sector as a single pattern while the bar chart focuses on each year as a single pattern.

Bar charts are ideal for comparison and ranking because they include values on baseline, making it easy to compare values. They’re also better than pie charts at showing part-to-whole relationships because the human eye is not good comparing sizes in pie charts.

Scatter plots are ideal for showing correlations between two factors – just remember that correlation does not prove a relationship.

Emphasize the most important data. For instance, in scatter plots place the most important data along the X or Y axis.

Limit the number of colors and shapes in a single view. Too many colors and shapes in a single graphic can create a confusing, crowded look. Don’t use more than seven to 10 colors and shapes at once.

Avoid more than two color palettes, and use color scales that don’t overlap.

When picking fonts for online display, stick to web-friendly fonts like Trebuchet MS, Verdanda, Arial or Times New Roman. All are solid easily-readable fonts. Sans-serif fonts are favored by most designers for charts.

Key principle: The simplest design approach is almost always the best approach.

Bottom Line: Charts, graphs and other types of data visualizations better communicate data than words alone. In an environment that’s increasingly data driven, savvy PR pros now emphasize use of data visualization to better deliver corporate and brand messages.

This article was originally published on the CyberAlert blog.