The importance of data visualization: When to cut, add, or rethink charts

What an article says and how it says it—its language and visual presentation—are equally important. Whether a piece is complex with lots of details or merely attempting to report straightforward facts, visualizing data in a way that’s easy to understand can greatly improve the reading experience.

That said, many thought leadership teams are rightfully proud of their careful analyses and insights. As a result, they’re tempted to include chart after chart exploring their research and experience. But doing so can distract from an article’s primary takeaways.

So how can you ensure your data visualization truly adds to your content?

The following points can help you determine when to cut charts, think about adding new ones, or rethink existing ones—ultimately improving the clarity of ideas in an article and allowing it to have a greater impact on readers.

When to cut

Sometimes less is more. Charts should usually be cut in the following two instances:

The data are related to a minor point in the article

Readers should be able to grasp the main messages of a piece by reading the title and headings and scanning the charts. In general, it helps to limit the number of charts to the number of sections in an article; otherwise, readers can get bogged down in the details. Charts that appear close together or that depict minor, down-in-the-weeds details can most likely be eliminated.

Ask yourself, “Do readers need to see this point visualized to understand the material?”

The data can easily be expressed in text

Often, if the message of a chart can simply be stated in text, data visualization will not add value. Examples of this include simple percentages, stats, or definitions of terms (Exhibit 1). On this last point, charts that are made up entirely or mostly of text can simply be converted to article text—for example, a chart that details the various actors or components in a process.

Ask yourself, “Is this point clear enough to stand on its own as text?”

Exhibit 1: Simple percentages would often be better expressed in text.

When to add or rethink

Sometimes, a complex concept is crying out for visualization. Other times, good charts just need a little bit of polish to become great charts. There are also instances in which critical charts need major overhauls to fix fundamental flaws. The following examples can help you identify when to add something new or rethink something that can be improved.

The data can be highlighted for emphasis

To begin, look for any interesting facts, processes, systems, or complex comparisons (such as various sources of revenue from one year to the next) or ranges (such as values or volumes over long periods of time) to begin visualizing something interesting.

Ask yourself, “Are there interesting points in this article that are being overlooked?”

The data do not connect with the message of the article

If a chart is important but does not connect with the message of the article, it can sometimes be improved with some tweaking or by taking a fresh approach. Simplification should be the goal here. It helps to first identify what the chart is trying to say in relation to the surrounding text. From there, the elements that best convey that message should be emphasized (Exhibit 2).

Ask yourself, “What is the key finding we are trying to highlight?”

Exhibit 2: Charts could be simplified or adjusted to draw the reader’s attention to the most relevant details.


Visualizing the data in an article should be a collaboration between authors, editors, and designers. The value editors and designers offer is helping convey complex concepts or ideas in clear, precise ways. Placing equal emphasis on what an article says and how it says it can help reveal the core message of content and ensure that it successfully connects with readers.

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