Due to the ugly unfolding of COVID-19, as well as the run-up to the November election, all of us were exposed to a massive trove of data-driven research … and the beautifully creative ways journalists and bloggers chose to visualize those insights.
For content marketers who have access to original research (think: original surveys, analyzing user data, or analyzing third party data), visualizing data is a fantastic way to get attention and earn credibility.
That said, think through the elements of good information design before you go running off to create your next chart or infographic. Let’s run through ideas to get you started – both the design and the tools and resources to support your efforts.
Create your information design template
I promised we would get creative, but before creativity comes discipline. Patience, grasshopper.
It’s absolutely critical to choose a data-graphics template before you go out and start creating. A template allows you to create a portfolio of data visualizations that all belong to the same “style family.” But even more important: A design template ensures any chart/graph you create is complete as is – without the need for explanation or context. When someone captures your on-screen chart/graph for reuse, it can stand on its own and lead back to your brand.
What do I mean by a “template?” Think of it as the shell in which you create any chart and graph. Below, the Pew Research Center example includes:
- A title that gives the primary finding
- A subhed that explains the question being visualized
- Captions with highly detailed clarifying information
- A source credit
Pew also uses limited color palettes to ensure information is clean, clear, and non-sensationalist in style. If you visit the Pew Research Center website, you can see every chart and graph follows these rules; their research is clear and imprinted with Pew’s brand identity.
Your data visualizations may not require as much information as the Pew example. Still you should have a schema to ensure each chart and graph reflects the question or data selection being visualized. You also should include a source credit that leads back to your company. (If your infographic contains multiple visualizations, you should still use a footer that details the specifics of what’s shown.)
In my experience, the public isn’t always facile reading charts and graphs, and for that reason, my bias is toward simplicity. I often hear, “Bar charts are BORING,” but people generally know how to read bar charts, so don’t be so quick to write them off. If you choose more “creative” (read: less common) charts and graphs, be absolutely sure they make sense for the data and they’re easy to decode.
When people ask me about getting started with data visualization, I invariably recommend two books: The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics and Scott Berinato’s Good Charts: The HBR Guide to Making Smarter, More Persuasive Data Visualizations.
The Wall Street Journal book is a call to simplicity. You won’t find many creative visualizations, but you will find an excellent primer about using color, typography, annotations, and other tips to aid in clarity. It’s an excellent resource.
Scott’s book is more about the creative process of choosing a chart or graph for your data. When should you consider a spider chart versus a treemap? Which charts are best to visualize comparison data? Which ones best visualize composition or relationships? I find myself browsing this book before beginning new research projects.
TIP: It’s useful to think about chart types even while you’re designing survey questions.
Now a cautionary tale. Why do I believe so passionately in simplicity? Because invariably, when companies get “creative” with visualizations, things can go off the rails. I keep a collection of off-the-rails moments for giggles. Below is a recent entry that landed on Reddit.
It was created by BP, an energy behemoth that should have a massive budget for such things. I stared at it for a good while before I understood it because it’s riddled with problems. What stopwatch has six hands? Don’t countdown clocks typically tick down, not up? There is so much to hate here. (As one Redditor joked, “So, we have 314 years of oil left?”)
Leverage data visualization tools
With so many amazing visualization tools out there, your choices will depend much on your budget and if it’s a one-time or ongoing effort. Here are a few:
Ceros helps brands create interactive, experiential digital stories and includes a neat data-viz tool. Ceros is a good option for telling a multi-dimensional story – one that requires many media types such as content, imagery, videos, and graphics. While it’s not inexpensive, the final, polished product from Ceros will be worth it.
[email protected] is a good tool for telling a multi-dimensional story – one that requires many media types such as #content, imagery, videos, and graphics, says @clare_mcd via @CMIContent. #DataViz #tools Click To Tweet
Flourish is my workhorse at Mantis Research. I use it regularly to create beautiful templates and visualizations on behalf of clients. Why do I love it? Once you get the hang of the menu, it’s easy to create custom charts and graphs for all your original research. The portfolio of available chart types is HUGE, and the formatting options let you customize the look and feel of your brand. Flourish has dummy-proof filter options (e.g., let users interact with the graph and view slices of your data). Best of all, you can extract your visualization as a static image (e.g., png file), an HTML file for embedding in a blog post, or even as an animation (more on animations in a bit.)
Canva graph maker
If your budget is leaner and your needs simpler, Canva’s graph maker may be for you. This budget friendly tool can produce social media-ready charts and graphs from its portfolio of templates. The tradeoff, however, is it sometimes requires more fiddling to get the graph just right. You also are limited in terms of the types of charts/graphs available. It’s best for simple data visualization, like bar charts or donut charts.
Tableau is an amazing tool for building interactive charts and graphs, though I find in most cases it’s out of reach of the casual user. I mention it because many data journalists rely on Tableau to tell complex, nuanced data stories in rich media format online. Unless you’re committed to learning Tableau for long-term use (or you have some coding experience to speed adoption), it’s too difficult to get the hang of for your next project.
With experience, get creative
Now that I’ve spent 10 minutes warning you to go for simple and clear, let’s talk about some of the less simple but ridiculously fun options for data visualization.
I like to follow data journalists and data-driven media sites on Twitter to see what the experts are doing with visualization (you can follow my Twitter list here). Increasingly the big media companies are telling data-driven stories – visually explaining an issue or trend in moving charts and graphs. This example from Bloomberg explores whether an urban exodus is happening in the pandemic. You can hover over the first map of the United States to see the net inflow/outflow by city. A second map lets you choose a city to view city data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s truly a beautiful rendering of complex data.
If you think these types of engaging visualizations are off-limits to you … you would be wrong. A tool like Flourish can help you create engaging, interactive graphics with no coding experience. (You bring the data, of course.) Among my favorite Flourish graphics is the bar chart race … an animation of what would typically be a multiple-line chart.
Becoming an expert in data visualization takes some trial and error. I encourage you to start simple and learn the foundational informational design skills first (such as you’ll find in The Wall Street Journal guide). And if you itch to make a simple improvement or create a heatmap, scratch that itch.
Next time you present your content marketing performance to the team, consider using the conditional formatting feature in Google Charts to take it up a notch. (Find it under format >> conditional formatting.) Who wants to look at a big ol’ table when you can use a heatmap overlay to hit the aha factor?
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute