Graphs: tips from the Briefings - formats, typography

This is the second of several emails that look at the UK Daily Coronavirus Briefings on TV. This one is on graph format and typography. 

Many of the Briefings’ graphs need love and attention… you see, I’ve downloaded every slide from every Briefing (here’s where I got them from) – and their graphs have been… well, ‘work-in-progress’. They’ve evolved. Ropey at first, but better over time. And I do appreciate that, when fighting pandemics, formatting graphs isn’t key.

Let's start. Figure 1 shows fictional data for cumulative total infections for each of countries A, B, C, D. Figure 2 is typographically different. Let's compare.

Avoid legends (i.e. the bit in Figure 1 beneath the x-axis that tells you what each line is): legends set up puzzles for readers to decode, their eyes must flit back and forth between legend and lines. Instead, label lines directly – see Figure 2. Much easier to grasp.

Try to avoid colour: 5-10% of people are colour-blind or colour-deficient. What to do instead? Try different shades of grey – see Figure 2. Also, avoid talking about colours when presenting: e.g. don’t say: “See the yellow line”. Instead, say: “See the top line”.

Maybe put the y-axis on the right: see Figure 2. Readers more easily see key numbers, i.e. what’s been happening recently. (To do this in Excel: left-click over the y-axis labels, then right-click, then Format Axis, Labels, Label Position, High.)

Tidy the x-axis labels: in Figure 1, the word ‘Day’ appears 10 times. It’s visually intrusive, plus to fit them all in, they’re sideways - and that's not how we read. Figure 2 shows ‘Days’ just once. Much better. Then again, why show every day? Instead, just show 7, 9, 11, etc – or even 7, 10, 13, etc. The Briefings’ graphs have evolved precisely this way – at first, the word ‘Day’ many times and sideways, then just the numbers, then just every 4th or 5th number. Recently, its graphs show just the first and last dates, e.g. ’23-Mar’ far left and ’26-May’ far right, and nothing in between. Neat… albeit why ’23-Mar’? Why not ’23 Mar’? No dash. It’s a small point (or – rather – a small dash), but-we-don’t-need-the-dash-so-why-leave-it-in-just-because-Excel-gives-us-it?

Avoid sideways labels on the y-axis: in Figure 1, readers must crane their necks to read the words down the left. Badly formatted graphs really are a pain in the neck. 

Avoid y-axis lines if you’ve horizontal grids. You don’t need both. Study Figure 2 - it's better. Also, notice that in both Figures 1 and 2, the axes and horizontal lines are greyed down. This softens their look and makes graphs seem less… stark.

Avoid intrusive tick marks: study Figure 3, it’s an expanded view of part of the graph – but now the lines have tick marks. Line A is what often happens – an ugly tick mark. But do we need tick marks? After all, if people want exact numbers, do a table. Tick marks finally disappeared from the Briefings’ graphs after about a month. But... what if your boss insists on tick marks? Try line B - a small white circle. Smarter. Less intrusive. Or a small dot in a small white circle (line C). And if you are forced to use your corporate colour, try a small dot of, say, blue in a white circle (line D).

That's the typography tips. The next email is on graph type. It's a huge topic, so I'll focus on one particular bit: comparing exponential growth across countries, albeit I end up straying into other areas too. 

Something to bring a smile to your face: many people sent me the chart on the right, a visual done by a Professor of Geography at University of Oxford. I guess you need to be a Professor to understand it.

On that note, let's sign off.

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