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How to Brainstorm Data Visualizations by Understanding Their Essential Features

There’s more to visualizing data than plugging it into an Excel chart.

Good data visualizations help tell people a story.

Sometimes that story is told best with a standard line or bar graph. Whether your audience consists of potential customers, interested investors or the media, good data visualizations have three main features: intuitive presentation, efficient storytelling, and simple good looks. Some creativity is needed to get to the best results, but a little brainstorming can take data visualization a long way.

The Three Features of Creative Data Visualization

Geoff Boeing, an urban-planning researcher at Berkeley, took a particular part of the internet in a new direction in July 2018 by introducing a new way of visualizing street alignments in cities. (geoffboeing.com/2018/07/comparing-city-street-orientations/) Boeing’s chart, which combines bar and pie charts, has all three features of good creative data visualizations:

1. It shows the data in an intuitive way.

Boeing could have shown his data in a bar graph with cluttered labels for each street alignment, but that would have forced viewers to think of the data analytically instead of visually. By matching his data visualization to the cardinal directions used in maps, Boeing gives viewers a way to see the data and compare each city without having to think too hard.

2. It shows that data without clutter and distractions.

Boeing’s data visualization is extremely clear and well laid out. It doesn’t use unnecessary labels, and it highlights the data instead of the chart’s grid, keeping attention in the right place.

3. It is aesthetically pleasing.

The simplicity of Boeing’s data visualization gives it a minimalist aesthetic that gets out of the data’s way, and the display looks unique because of the intuitive way Boeing found to present the data. Boeing also makes sure not to use any obnoxious colors or wrong proportions.

How to Visually Brainstorm Data Visualization Ideas

To make a creative data visualization, take a look at your data, and decide on a story or a critical message. For example, a psychographics-based artificial intelligence business might want to focus their story on the strength of its predictive marketing capabilities. Whereas, an innovative vacuum brand might want to focus on the power of their product versus competing brands.

Once you have a story or key message in mind, start sketching ideas along these three lines:

1. Think and sketch with directly related images.

Many data visualizations use symbolic images to give their presentation some punch. For example, it might show 20 symbolic human figures that represent 1,000 real people each, resulting in a visual representation of 20,000 people.

2. Think and sketch with metaphorical images.

Data visualizations often use real-world objects to represent abstract ideas. For example, a chart about career growth and job prospects might combine a ladder with a line graph to show people climbing the career ladder.

3. Think and sketch in abstract images.

Director metaphorical images alone might not work, especially in business contexts. But by abstracting images, data visualizations can tap the viewer’s visual understanding without seeming cliche or corny. Think in shapes and directions and abstracted metaphors.

Abstractions on a Theme: Making the Right Data Visualization Choice

New York magazine, using data from Mason Currey, created a data visualization representing the sleep schedules of well-known geniuses by combining a pie chart and circular clock. (nymag.com/health/bestdoctors/2014/genius-sleeping-habits-2014-6/) Although partly abstracted, the table is almost instantly understandable because people are so familiar with circular clocks.

Still, there’s more than one way to visualize data. Data blog Info We Trust used the same data from Mason Currey to create a more detailed data visualization by splitting the data into individual abstracted clock charts for each person. (infowetrust.com/creative-routines/) Because each mini-chart is less cluttered, these charts are easy to understand while still providing more information than New York’s one large chart.

New York magazine and Info We Trust tell different stories with the same data. New York’s visualization tells a quick story about sleep schedules, while Info We Trust’s visualization tells a more comprehensive but less directed story about daily schedules.

When narrowing down brainstormed visual ideas to a final data visualization, remember to think about your audience. Busy mass-market customers will probably respond best to highly simplified visualizations and metaphorical images. If you’re putting together materials for investors or business customers, more detail is excellent, as long as the data is still clear.

A useful creative data visualization tells a story. It has to be intuitive, unambiguous, and good-looking. Cluttering and complicating your presentation is no better than sticking the data in a table and calling it a day. But if you help people see the data with a good data visualization, they will know your business’s unique value.

How to Brainstorm Data Visualizations by Understanding Their Essential Features
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