Visualize Show What You Mean
Link & Learn
If you really want to get your point across, show it, don’t just tell it.
The world is awash in data. We have metrics for almost everything: carbon footprints, consumer preferences, public safety, even your minute-by-minute heart rate and blood sugar levels. But what does it all mean?
The ability to turn data into insight is a vital communication skill. Often, the key is the right visualization. Learn to create audience-focused charts, tables, infographics, and presentation slides that are both beautiful and clear. Your colleagues, clients, and manager will sing your praises.
This chapter starts with three basic design concepts and then applies them to the creation of brain-friendly presentation slides, data visualizations, and infographics.
Section OneBasic Concepts
Make your work more attractive and effective by practicing good design. Studying design principles and elements could be the enjoyable work of a lifetime, but we’ll focus on just three essential categories: layout, contrast, and repetition.
The fundamentals of layout are space, alignment, and proximity. These are essential to an organized, uncluttered design, which is an indicator of credibility.
Space creates structure, guides the eye, and gives visual relief. According to the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Positive space refers to the subject or areas of interest in an artwork, such as a person's face or figure in a portrait, the objects in a still life painting, or the trees in a landscape painting. Negative space is the background or the area that surrounds the subject of the work.”
In a document or slide, the text and images define the positive space. The blank part of the page is the negative space.
See areas of positive and negative space by squinting your eyes to create blur.
Alignment creates a professional look. Without it, documents and slides appear disorganized. Align objects and blocks of text along your software’s gridlines or guides to create a sense of order and symmetry.
Proximity tells the eye which things belong together. Group related items together by clustering them, and then add white space between clusters. Proximity helps your audience quickly interpret your message.
Contrast catches the eye. A design without contrast dissolves into gray mush. You can focus attention and communicate hierarchy through variation in size, shape, color, and typography.
The greater the contrast, the greater the effect. But be careful. Your audience can become numb to constant variation, or overwhelmed by color and font combinations that clash instead of contrast. Determine which elements are most important and use contrast to give them maximum impact.
Add contrast with size, color, shade, and shape.
Be color aware. About 1 in 20 people experience color blindness. Also, if your work will be printed, test how it looks in grayscale. Finally, what looks like a great slide on your computer can look very different on a projection screen, especially if the projector is old, dim, or low-resolution. If you’re unsure about the quality of the projector, be safe by using rich colors with high contrast.
Once you’ve chosen strong, contrasting design elements, stay consistent throughout your document. Repeated use of layouts, colors, shapes, and fonts helps make a design look intentional, professional, and consistent.
Intentional repetition isn’t just pretty; repetition primes the audience’s brain so they know where to expect key information. Your efforts to be visually consistent are an example of our fundamental rule from Chapter 1: Don't make your audience do work that you should do for them.
Using a small range of consistent colors is key to good design. Some people are great at picking color palettes, others . . . not so much. Access the expertise of great designers by using one of these sites to create a color palette for a project you’re working on:
The organization you work for will most likely have its own style guide with an established color palette. Here, for example, is the Harvard Business School’s style guide. In the meantime, you’ll find this brief introduction to color theory useful:
With practice, you’ll master these basic concepts and your work will exhibit a level of visual sophistication that sets you apart from your professional peers.
Section TwoSlide Design
The design of your presentation slides can vary greatly depending on purpose and audience. Slides for TED talks have very low information density. They’re cinematic — dominated by simple, high-impact visuals, keeping the focus on the speaker. In contrast, slides for a weekly project update might be dominated by charts and graphs. We reiterate: be clear on your purpose and know your audience!
Across nearly all audiences, however, presentation slides tend to have too much text, which distracts the audience from the presenter. Avoid this problem by keeping your slides simple, consistent, and visual.
Because the human brain cannot multitask, simple slides adhere to the following rules.
The five-second test. Think of how quickly you pass a billboard on a freeway. Design your slides so your audience can capture the main message in the same amount of time—five seconds or less.
Test this by asking a trusted peer to look at your slide for five seconds, then blank the screen. Can your peer state the main takeaway? If not, redesign the slide.
Text-heavy slides fail this test. To reduce noise on the screen, highlight key words and get rid of the rest.
Lead lines. One textual element that is helpful is the slide title, usually at the top left of every slide. Our brains process information from top to bottom, so the most important information should appear at the top. Make your slide titles engaging “lead lines” that ask a question, make a statement, or otherwise draw in the audience.
For example, many presentations have a slide with the generic title, “Background.” Instead, use a descriptive lead line like, “Strong brand recognition but eroding market share.”
Default templates? Nope. The standard PowerPoint or Google Slides templates default to a box for a textual title and another for textual content. Thus, the path of least resistance is to use generic titles and bulleted lists, neither of which is brain friendly.
If you need a little design help, PowerPoint offers “Design Ideas”—but exercise restraint. If you use a built-in design idea, stay with the same one throughout your presentation. (See CONSISTENT below.) Similarly, Google Slides features an “Explore” option that provides slide design ideas for non-designers.
Bye-bye, bullets. Bullet points are visual Ambien®, guaranteed to put your audience to sleep. Avoid them at all costs.
Highlighted insights. Sometimes, you can’t avoid a text- or data-dense slide. To guide the audience’s eye to what matters, use visual triggers — colored boxes, circles, or arrows — to highlight the insight. Even if the slide contains a single bar chart, visually indicate the piece of data that really counts.
Presentation guru Nancy Duarte’s free Chart Annotation Toolkit provides myriad examples of highlighting key points. Additionally, her Animated Charts provide inspirational examples of highlighting key information.
Download the annotation toolkit and the animated charts. Find some data (like on bls.gov or census.gov) and create an animated, annotated slide.
Keeping slide decks simple increases the odds that the audience will remember your message and agree with your ideas.
The human brain is wired to recognize and remember patterns. Patterns are familiar arrangements of objects, symbols, or sounds. Imagine that you receive an insulting text message with a heart emoji. The message would confuse you because the words and the visual contradict each other: “You insult me but you love me anyway?” The elements don’t fit a familiar pattern.
Applying the “repetition” principle from section one, make sure your slide decks speak a consistent pattern language. Use a repeated hierarchy of headings and subheadings, uniform fonts (two at the most), a recognized color palette, and the same type of images (not a random assortment of clip art, icons, and photos).
If a slide deck is simple and consistent but not visual, the audience will not as readily remember the message. Tailor your slide decks to the human species’ first language: images. Use visual imagery that reinforces your message.
Slides that are simple, consistent, and visual create world-class brain-friendly presentations.
What is a Slide Doc?
Many organizations use presentation software to create reports. Truth be told, the visual design of these documents is usually abysmal. For a visually interesting report that is halfway between a standard white paper and a slide presentation, use a slide document, or slidedoc for short.
Slidedocs are a hybrid between the visual richness of presentation slides and the information density of text-based documents. To learn more, browse through this online book, which is itself a slidedoc. (Note: You need to enter your email address to access the book, but no payment is required.)
A NEW TREND in VISUAL REPORTS
Read Nancy Duarte’s explanation/demonstration of SlideDocs
If our discussion of slide design has whetted your appetite, resources like Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology and Canva’s Design School provide excellent guidance and insight on slide design. Venngage also offers solid examples of pitch decks that are a cross between a report and a slide deck.
Section ThreePro Tips
In addition to staying simple, consistent, and visual, remember the following nine temptations and techniques as you design your slides.
1. Slides Are Not Your Notes
Don’t create your slides before preparing your content. If you’re outlining your presentation on slides, you’re not really creating slides, you’re writing speaking notes. If you project these onto the screen and read them, your audience will ignore you and read ahead.
You might be falling into this temptation if your slides consist primarily of bulleted lists. Instead of simply listing your ideas, your slides should illustrate them. Move your speaking notes into the speaking notes panel at the bottom of the slide. Let your slides grab the audience with arresting visuals.
2. Slides Are Not Your Presentation
You are the presenter. Don’t let your slides take over. Unless you’re creating a stand-alone report like a slidedoc, your slides are the accompaniment; you’re the soloist. Don’t let your slides compete with you for the audience’s attention.
Animations and transitions can be distracting. Avoid them unless you have a clear need to illustrate movement. To communicate dense information or complex ideas, piece together a series of slides layer by layer. Called “builds,” these effects translate well to PDF or print.
3. Slides Are Not Your Handout
If you’ve designed them wisely, your presentation slides cannot stand alone as a handout. If your audience and setting demand it, design a separate one-page summary of your presentation: and handout. Apply the consistency principle: your handout should mirror the design of your slides.
4. Slides Are Free
Adding slides doesn’t cost you anything, so go ahead. Split dense content across multiple slides. Increase your font size. Add white space. Crowded slides make the audience’s brains hurt.
Uncrowded slides are a cognitive and aesthetic delight.
5. The Graphics Need to Be High Quality
The principles of viusal rhetoric suggest that the quality of the images you include reflects on you as a professional.
Graphics Beware of copying and pasting graphs, charts, and tables from sources on the internet, even if you cite the source (which is a must to avoid plagiarism). The graphic itself often appears low-res and pixelated. If needed, create your own version with the same data (and still cite the source).
Icons Avoid old-fashioned clipart. Use well-designed, high-resolution icons instead to symbolize objects and actions. Find them either using your slide design software’s library or online at NounProject, IconFinder, or FlatIcon.
Video Short, punchy videos can quickly illustrate your point, wake up a crowd, or show a process. Embedding a video frees you from reliance on internet streaming; on the other hand, simply linking to it keeps your file size small.
Make sure your video and audio technology works and that you know how to use it. One surefire way to make the audience uncomfortable is for your video to fail, obligating them to watch you try (usually unsuccessfully) to fix it. If you are presenting in a new space, you may want to eliminate video clips from your presentation unless you have the chance to practice beforehand.
Photos People love to look at beautiful photographs. Choose high-resolution photos that will connect with your audience, appear candid (rather than posed), and will not be offensive. For maximum impact, use photos at “full bleed”—let the photo fill the slide, even if it “bleeds” off the edges. Photos are powerful because they include several layers of meaning. Experiment with photos whose connection to the topic is clear but not blatantly obvious, such as the examples below. Both are stock photos intended to illustrate teamwork.
Look for a free high-resolution photo that illustrates the concept of tenacity. Place it on a slide with some text.
6. Template = Starting Point
Templates and built-in themes are convenient, but as mentioned above, be cautious. Using them as-is makes your work seem lazy and unoriginal.
Customize templates by changing some colors or graphic elements. Check out Slides Carnival for template ideas. You may be better off creating your own template by setting default layouts, typography, colors, and backgrounds in master slides. Learn how in Google Slides, PowerPoint, or Beautiful.ai
7. Signposting Provides Navigation
Especially in long presentations, your audience will appreciate visual cues that remind them of your agenda and help them track your progress through the presentation. Create a running agenda along the side or bottom to show where you are and where you are going.
A “running agenda” indicates your progress with visual elements at an edge of your slides. Highlighting the current agenda item creates context for your audience.
8. Words are Meant to be Read
Chapter 5: Format outlines principles of good typography. In the context of slide design, also remember the following:
Go big. Can people in the back of the room read your (minimal and carefully chosen) text? Use a large enough font size, such as 90 point for titles and at least 40 for quotes or other indispensable text.
Ensure contrast. Your text must stand out against the background. If the background is a photograph, consider putting the text in a box or ribbon that overlays the image and provides better color contrast.
9. Tech Will Betray You
Sooner or later, your technology will fail. Be prepared by saving copies of your slides on a flash drive and on the web. If your host or meeting organizer will be at your presentation, send him or her a copy to load in advance. If you have accompanying files, like videos, images, or fonts, keep them with your slides in a single, clearly labeled folder and compress that into a .zip file. Include a PDF version of your slides in case the right software isn’t available.
Remember that colors and fonts may change with different projectors, screens, and printers. Where possible, plan some setup time to deal with any issues that might arise.
Create a set of three or four slides about sleep deprivation in college students. Include the fact that 60% of college students get insufficient sleep, and most need 8 hours a night. Finally, give your tips for getting adequate rest.
Section FourData Viz & Infographics
Data is money. It drives decisions and seals deals. In business, you’ll present data in slides, refer to it in written documents, post it online, and use it to create infographics. But remember: your purpose is not to communicate data. Your purpose is to communicate meaning.
Data visualizations and infographics both communicate meaning through data, but they are different. A data visualization brings to life a specific set of quantitative data, typically to answer one question. For example, this well-executed graph tracks automobile-related deaths and federally mandated safety policies over the past 60 years, artfully integrated into a page from the New York Times.
An infographic, in contrast, visually represents a comprehensive story with a combination of quantitative and qualitative data. Infographics often incorporate one or more data visualizations. Their purpose is to present a collection of facts, and then let the audience make up its own mind on the topic. Here’s an example from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how households can use less water during the summer months.
Creating a chart in Google Sheets, Tableau, or Microsoft Excel isn’t hard, but these tools don’t know what story you’re trying to tell with your data. Their default designs will not help you make your point, so strip away the visual clutter built into the defaults, keeping only the elements that focus attention where you want it. Darkhorse Analytics shows how to do this, step by step, in its animated illustration entitled Clear Off the Table.
Learn how to make elegant, minimalist graphs and tables by reading Darkhorse Analytics' "Clear Off The Table."
You know you’re on the right track if your audience can see the story in your chart within five seconds. Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic champions this approach on her blog Storytelling with Data. Nancy Duarte espouses a similar approach in her 2019 book, Data Story.
Look at the dramatic before and after of a sample sales report design: PrintTech.
“Every bit of ink on a graphic requires a reason. And nearly always that reason should be that the ink presents new information.”
Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1983).
Select a Chart Type
Decide what story you’re trying to tell with your data, then choose an appropriate chart. For instance, a line graph can show trends over time, and a bar chart is good for comparisons. Pie charts are popular, but they don’t provide visual precision. Nancy Duarte’s annotation toolkit will help you choose a chart that will tell the right story. Note that complex stories may require multiple charts, and sometimes a clean, precise table is the best way to present your data.
Cut the Clutter
Remove all formatting: the borders, tick marks, background, 3D effects, shading, and all color. Reduce text by removing the labels, title, and legend. In many cases you can even remove an axis.
Build up your chart again, but be sure that everything you add makes your message more clear. Label data directly rather than with a legend. Add color and weight to focus attention. Add a title or callout that tells your story rather than just describing your chart.
Complete this interactive practice simplifying a table and graph: Simplifying Data Display
Infographics can be memorable, but creative approaches may be more or less appropriate depending on the expectations and culture within an industry or profession (think advertising vs. accounting).
Maintain credibility by citing your sources. Visual communication isn't limited to numbers. In addition, you can visually represent abstract concepts, narratives, relationships, and processes.
Turning concrete data and abstract ideas into actionable insights is a vital professional skill. Well-designed visual elements force you to be precise and concise. Clever illustrations delight your audience and inspire them to act on your idea, purchase your product, or change their minds.
Always show rather than merely say what you mean.
To access the previous PDF version of the online textbook, click here. Note: The PDF version will not reflect any updates or changes.
Please let us know.
Bold citations are referenced in the chapter text.
“Can I Use that Picture? The Terms, Laws, and Ethics for Using Copyrighted Images” (Infographic). The Visual Communication Guy. 2014. Accessed July 2022.
Cherry, Kendra. “Color Psychology: Does It Affect How You Feel?” Verywell Mind. May 28, 2020. Accessed July 2022.
“Data Visualization 101: How to Design Charts and Graphs.” Visage. April 27, 2015. Accessed July 2022.
Desjardins, Jeff. “13 Scientific Reasons Explaining Why You Crave Infographics.” Visual Capitalist. September 6, 2016. Accessed July 2022.
Duarte, Nancy. “Do your Slides Pass the Glance Test?” Harvard Business Review. October 22, 2012. Accessed July 2022.
Duarte, Nancy. “The Quick and Dirty on Data Visualization.” Harvard Business Review. April 16, 2014. Accessed July 2022.
Fairfield, Hannah. “Driving Safely, In Fits and Starts.” New York Times. September 17, 2012. Accessed July 2022.
Hobbs, Karyn, Sonia Clarke, and Amy Rathborne. “The Power of Visual Communication: Showing your story to land the message.” PwC Reports. April 2017. Accessed July 2022.
Smith, Laurence D., Lisa A. Best, D. Alan Stubbs, Andrea Bastiani Archibald, and Roxann Robertson-Nay. 2002. “Constructing knowledge: The role of graphs and tables in hard and soft psychology.” American Psychologist 57, no. 10 (2002): 749-761. Accessed July 2022.
Berinato, Scott. Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations. Harvard Business Review: 2016.
Duarte, Nancy. Slidedocs: Spread ideas with effective visual documents. Duarte, Inc.: 2016. http://www.duarte.com/slidedocs/, Accessed February 2017.
Duarte, Nancy. Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media, 2008.
Knaflic, Cole Nussbaumer. Storytelling with Data. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.
Medina, John. Brain rules : 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA : Pear Press, 2008.
Adobe Color CC. “Create.” Accessed July 2022.
Canva. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
Color Matters. “Basic Color Theory.” Accessed July 2022.
Coolors + Skillshare. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
Creative Commons. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
Flaticon. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
Flickr. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
FreeImages. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
GCF Global. “Editing Master Slides and Layouts.” Accessed July 2022.
Iconfinder. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
Infogram. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
The Noun Project. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
Pexels. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
Piktochart. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
Storytelling With Data. Accessed July 2022
Unsplash. “Home.” Accessed July 2022.
"WaterSense Summer Infographic." epa.gov. September 16, 2021. Accessed July 2022.
Venngage. “Templates.” Accessed July 2022.
Cole Nussbaumer YouTube Channel. YouTube. Accessed February 2017.
Infogram, “How to Create Charts, Reports, and Infographics with Infogram,” YouTube, published December 8, 2016. Accessed February 2017.
Infogram, “Video Tutorial: Get Started with Infogram,” Infogram. Accessed April 2020.
Kimberly Ann Jimenez, “How To Create Infographics (The UltraSimple & Easy Way),” YouTube, published February 13, 2014. Accessed February 2017.
Ted. “Chris Jordan: Turning powerful stats into art,” YouTube, published June 23, 2008. Accessed February 2017.
Ted-Ed. “The beauty of data visualization - David McCandless,” YouTube, published November 23, 2012. Accessed February 2017.