Tuesday, January 4, 2011

a new year's resolution: declutter your graphics

Happy 2011! One popular new year's resolution is to declutter: declutter your closet, declutter your life. I'd like you to consider decluttering of a different variety: declutter your data visuals.

Last month, I visited a Midwest retailer to run a workshop on communicating effectively with data. Leading up to the session, I asked participants to send me data visualizations on which they would like feedback. I decided I'd take it a step further from just providing feedback and do visual makeovers on a few of the submissions.

As I was revamping the graphs, I relished in the fun of teasing a story out of data. It never ceases to amaze me how relatively minor changes can take a visual from a mess of data to a clear message that pops. In this post, I'll walk you through one such transformation. (Note: I've changed the data so as not to give away any sensitive information.)


The intent of the graphic (discerned from the slide title, which is omitted above) is that, while spending less on clothing and using coupons more both have net increases over the time period considered, shopping sales more often is relatively flat at end of period compared to beginning of period. This is highlighted directly on the graphic via the red circles at the beginning and end points.

It takes a bit of time and patience to tease this story out with the above graphic. That's due to a couple of reasons:
  1. The sheer distance between the series and the legend means you have to refer back and forth a couple of times to understand what you're looking at and which series is which (the different colored shapes on the black lines aren't immediately visually very different from each other, which doesn't help).
  2. There are a lot of distractions that you have to sift to in order to figure out what's important to pay attention to. The background shading, gridlines, and borders don't add any informative value. But visually, they are as strong as the data, which means we have to take everything in to establish an order of priority in which to consider the information, because this isn't done visually for us.
Below is my remake, graphing the same data.


First, I changed the series colors to be strikingly visually different from one another. I eliminated the markers for the individual data points, which added unnecessary clutter. I left markers for only the beginning and end points (and labeled those directly, removing the y-axis altogether), since the story the author seemed to be trying to tell focused on those.

I eliminated the background shading, gridlines, and borders. Not only did these not add informative value in the original visual, but they actually make the data stand out less. If we want our data to tell the story, we need to make it stand out the most. In the resulting visual, there are few things competing for our attention, so we can relatively quickly and with little effort start to see what can be learned from the information that is being presented.

Note: One thing you don't get from my madeover version is a clear indication of the magnitude of the points in the middle of the graph (though you can get some sense of this from the relative positioning of the labels on either end). If this were important (I don't believe that it is here), you could add very thin, light horizontal gridlines at multiples of 10's to help make that more explicit.

Often, it is minor changes that will help you take a visual from good to great. Decluttering is a great place to start improving the effectiveness of your graphics. Ask yourself: does this need to be here? Is it adding any informative value? If the answer is no, then take it out!

Leave a comment to let me know what you think. Stay tuned for more makeovers!


  1. I really like the new graph, which is clean and elegant. My initial reaction to the original graph was the same as yours: too dark (both the lines and the background) with too much distance between the lines and the legend. One of my favorite things about your revision is the addition of a subtitle, which clarifies things considerably and unburdens the line descriptions.

    I was going to say something about how it's difficult to tell where the various lines peak in the middle of the graph, but then you pointed that out yourself. I would be tempted to add a marker at the maximum value of the top line, but it's probably better to leave it off to avoid undue attention. You're right that it doesn't seem to be a point of emphasis, and there's enough surrounding information available to eyeball it.

    I also like how you've changed the scale make the trends more meaningful. Generally I shy away from having the legend on the side, but in this case it helps compress the graph horizontally so that it's not as much of a visual stretch between the two sides.

    So, great graph! As a technical request, is it possible to make it so that we can zoom in on the embedded images, either in a new tab or a pop-up window? I'm squinting a bit at the 2-point font on the shrunken graphs.

    Good post! Can't wait for the next one.

  2. May I ask what software do you use to produce the new graph and what other software do you usually use? Thanks.

  3. Hi Yuan Yuan - I use Excel for pretty much everything (including the graph in this post). I like to call it "brute force Excel", because it isn't always so straightforward. In the graph above, the series labels are text boxes. The point values were created by showing the value for the individual starting and end points in the series. I've manually picked the colors, removed gridlines, etc. Happy to answer any specific questions you may have. I'm also planning a post focused on "how to do it in Excel" in the near future. Hope this helps!