Design excellence in communications: A Q&A with McKinsey Quarterly’s Delilah Zak

When communicating complex ideas or data, effective visuals can allow readers to grasp the main idea quickly. The challenge, then, is to translate ideas into a straightforward, concise graphic. Delilah Zak, one of the lead designers for McKinsey Quarterly, is an expert at making business concepts and data comprehensible and memorable. Below she shares some tips for how to make your infographics come to life.

What are some common mistakes that companies make in presenting information in a graphic, visual way?

The most common mistake people make in presenting graphic information and data is not using the right kind of chart for their intended message. In addition, people often try to show too much in one visual, forcing the reader to search for the main point. Unnecessary decoration—pie charts in shapes other than circles or excessive 3D effects—can undermine a chart. Remember that a chart should always be accessible and clear so that a reader gets the intended message right away.

Are there any hard, fast rules that companies should always follow for charts?

Make sure the charts are appropriate to support your message and keep the designs simple and clear; let the data shine. If you are presenting to a group, make sure everything on the screen can be read by the person sitting in the back of the room.

Describe your philosophy and method for selecting the right format for charts.

There are many different kinds of charts and they vary in complexity, but when it comes to pure data, I usually always start with one of the five most essential chart types:

  • Pie chart or stacked-column chart
  • Bar chart
  • Column chart
  • Line chart
  • Dot/scatterplot

Sometimes, I try to push the visual and experiment to see if it can be depicted in a different way while still staying clear and to the message. There are times where a unique, clean, and beautiful visual emerges. However, in my experience, most of the time a bar chart works the clearest as a basic bar chart, so there’s no need to overthink it.

Charts can also be purely abstract depictions―such as, organizational structures, venn diagrams, process flows. I try to pay attention to what kind of depiction is described in the message and then I try to visualize it in the clearest way.

Other philosophies that I have: if the chart isn’t working, don’t force it or change it. The data don’t lie, so charts that are shown incorrectly may look inaccurate. Similarly, if a chart is not labeled, footnoted, or sourced correctly, these elements can hurt or dilute your message. Finally, remember that less is more: less decoration and fewer charts will make your data and visuals have more clarity, more impact, and be memorable.

What are some recent trends or new tools that can help with the visual presentation of ideas?
One current trend is to use very visual infographics that tell a data-driven story. I follow some infographics blogs, such as Cool Infographics and Infographics News. In addition, GOOD Magazine has an infographics section. While some of these examples are completely overdecorated and messy, they do provide many different ways to think about and deliver your message with a compact and cohesive visual story.

Other data visualization blogs/sites worth checking out include Infothetics, Information Is Beautiful, Visual Complexity, Chart Porn, and Datavis.

The New York Times always does interesting things with their data visualization and charts, and they try new things all of the time. Some work really well and some don’t, but they are always fun and informative to look at and experience.

There are new tools online to help you, such as chart creators, but I am still a little old school and just draw things myself. Even with these tools and trends, the underlying philosophy should still be the same. Message first, then pick the right chart format for the data to support your message.

For more information on good charts and visuals, everyone should read Say It With Charts, by Gene Zelazny, and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte. Studying these books, learning from other designers and infographics editors that I work with, and exploring different ways of displaying data and information have been instrumental in shaping the philosophy that I follow when I am asked to create a chart.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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