POP QUIZ: Let’s say your company has five products, and you want to show which one sells the most. What you need is:
- A 3-D bubble chart, where the size, color, and viscosity of the bubbles reveal trend data on their performance
- Clip art of your products next to the price list
- A bar chart
The correct answer, of course, is the bar chart.
In business communications, data visualizations—charts, infographics, and the like—have long been vaunted as an effective way to tell a story. In recent years, the race for readers and page views has intensified the appeal of visuals; articles, blog posts, and social media streams that include photos and videos are widely recognized as the most engaging. To feed this craving—and to compensate for outfits with little or no design capability—there are even websites that offer paint-by-numbers infographics. (You might as well pair them with a choice stock photo while you’re at it.)
Good design uses solid data to tell a story to a specific audience. Delilah and our associate designer Jake told me that one of the biggest mistakes in business communication design isn’t a lack of talent or ideas: it’s that sometimes people will look at a bar chart and think it’s too plain, or they’ll try to reverse-engineer flashy visuals into the data. They prioritize “unique,” “different,” or “fun” ideas over the utility of the visualization—resulting in some seriously overwrought visualizations.
I asked them to demonstrate this concept, and I gave them some raw data on Chicago’s top museums (because here at Leff Communications, we really dig Chicago). Delilah was tasked with the poorly designed version:
The purpose of the visualization is purportedly to compare revenue of Chicago’s top museums. To demonstrate “overdesign,” Delilah used a format that has nothing to do with museum revenue—a planetary amalgamation. Over this, she added an unnecessary layer of hierarchy—color coding matched to a key, which introduces a whole rainbow to interpret. She could fit only the top 15 museums both because the design takes up so much space and because museums 16–20 would be nothing but a speck on the page.
Jake was tasked with the well-designed version, which—you guessed it—is a bar chart:
Bar charts, pie charts, and line graphs are the building blocks of business communications design: they’re intuitive, readers know how to interpret them, and they are often the quickest and clearest way to compare and contrast information. Jake’s chart is clean, straightforward, and easy to read. And when you’re communicating with a business audience that is increasingly pressed for time, clear design will always win out.
So what’s the lesson? Never start with the twist (the “pop”); start with the data, and make sure the design serves its intended purpose of direct communication. Complex, innovative design has its place—but more often than not, the functional and simple option is the best one.
The main takeaway: The next time you’re tempted to use a 3-D bubble chart or clip art to inject some visual interest, remember that the most powerful visualization allows the numbers to speak for themselves. Any professional graphic designer will tell you that the message you’re trying to communicate (function) should dictate the design (form)—never the other way around.