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Cutting Through the Clutter: Honing Your Data Visualization Craft

Written by: Sara McGuire

Sep 18, 2015

It may seem obvious to state that the way data is presented will determine the way data is read (or whether it is read at all)—but in an environment saturated with images and clickbait content, it’s worth remembering. When creating an infographic, it’s easy to get carried away by including too much text or too many images, to the point where your main message can be lost in all the information. The old adage “less is more” is highly relevant where data visualization is concerned.

Looking at data visualization as a craft to be honed can be what sets your work apart from other more cluttered graphic presentations. Treating your data presentation as a data story, rather than an assemblage of stats and informational points, will lead to more interesting, more fluent data communication.

At the center of effective data communication are basic elements of storytelling and revision. In a recent Newyorker article, John Mcphee states that “writing is omission.” This is a fundamental concept that has been drilled into writing students for decades. In order to write well, you must be prepared to pare down your writing—to remove extraneous and unnecessary words and sentences until you are left with a concise and polished piece. The same process of revision is required for good data visualization. That being said, it can be difficult to know what to keep and what to cut.

When cutting through the clutter to find your data story at the centre, consider the four C’s of clutter control: Conceptualize, Create, Critique, and Cut.

Conceptualize—It’s always a good idea to create a rough plot of your infographic before you begin creating. Come up with a catchy and descriptive title. Establish a beginning point to contextualize the information you are presenting. Similarly, have an idea of what the ending point will be and come to some kind of conclusion or call to action. Figure out what path you want the reader’s eyes to take. Should your ending be a call to action? Also, what is the tone of your data story—is it playful? Businesslike?

Create—Craft your data story. Have fun with it. Include interesting and surprising information that the reader might not have seen before. Look for creative ways to illustrate your points: pictures, icons, graphs, charts, and maps. Interactive elements like polls can drive reader engagement with your data story and can spur further investigation. Make your data story visually interesting by using colour and shape variation. Remember: “form reflects content.”

Critique—Have someone else read your data story before publishing. A second set of eyes will always reveal things you missed, and will be able to tell you whether or not your data story makes sense. Ask yourself: is your data story consistent (same verb tense, consistent terminology, consistent design)? Is your data story focused? Is there any information that distracts the reader from the main point of your data story? Is it fun to read?

Cut—Remove information that is extraneous or unnecessary. Keep information that is essential and interesting. Don’t overwhelm your reader with too much text or too many images. Ask yourself: can extra information can be removed and set aside for another infographic? Would a certain point be better communicated as an image? Could a part be arranged differently to improve the flow of your data story?

Look at the following infographic:


Immediately, the reader is confronted by a wall of text and shapes. The title and the image of the beer in the centre of the page looks good and is thematically relevant, but the overwhelming number of shapes pulls the eyes in too many directions. Every space on the page is filled, making it difficult for the reader to follow any particular narrative path. With so many different pieces of information being presented at once, the reader is tempted to move on, rather than attempt to read everything.

This is a case where the information would benefit from cutting and reorienting. Although the infographic draws connections between the different types of beers, it is difficult to sort through the clutter of information. Rather than trying to fit all the different varieties of beer into one infographic, the creator could make a series of infographics, each focusing on one overarching category of beer—Lagers and Ales or, drilled down even further, Lambic, Belgian/French Ale, German Lager, etc. Reducing the amount of information on the page creates more whitespace and allows for the use of a more fluid and intuitive layout.

Marketers and designers stress the importance of whitespace when visualizing data. Users on average read only 28% of text on a page—so if your infographic has too many words, your story will get lost and you will lose your reader’s attention. Whitespace allows the reader to focus in on individual points and to pause in between to consider them. Fight the urge to fill in the gaps and allow your points room to breathe.

The monochrome colour scheme creates no visual interest or differentiation between points. Consider the classic rule of writing, “form reflects content.” Beer is a fun topic. Beer interests people. Using brighter colours or a combination of colours will reflect the interest and excitement of this topic. The key is to create a design that is consistent, but with enough visual variation to make it aesthetically pleasing.

Now, look at this clutter-free infographic:


This one is much easier to read. The subject of the infographic is focused on one type of beer and clearly stated in the title. The image of a pint of Guinness anchors the seven concise points along the left side of the infographic.

The text is concise and the whitespace on the page allows the reader to focus on and consider each point. Colour variation gives the infographic visual interest, while still maintaining a consistent colour scheme. By numbering each point, the eye is given a clear path to follow from the top of the page to the bottom. Some side information—how to properly pour a Guinness—is separated to the other side of the page, connected to the main point by a solid line.

This doesn’t mean that an infographic that moves from top to bottom is necessarily better than one that moves from the middle out. What is important is that there is a path for your eyes to travel and that the information flows. In the most basic of senses, your data story should be easy to read and enjoyable.

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

None of this should discourage you from looking for new and creative ways to visualize data. Data visualization is a boundary-pushing genre that enables creators to synthesize statistical information with visual design. The thing to remember is that at the center of any data story is, of course, the information you are trying to communicate. After the breakthrough of a new form of artistic expression, the creator must then hone their craft to create lasting work. By considering the four C’s to cut through the clutter—conceptualize, create, critique, and cut—you can create beautiful and effective infographics.


Do you have any tips for clutter control in data visualization?

Part II of our Data Storytelling series.

Image Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/156077943306485456


About Sara McGuire

Sara McGuire is the former Content Marketing Manager at Venngage. She believes that growth by content doesn't require a big budget if you're scrappy. Her writing has been published on Marketing Profs, HubSpot, and Content Marketing Institute. Follow her on Twitter @sara_mcguire