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Five Tips for Meaningful and Understandable Graphs


Fred C. Veldhuis

Aug 11, 2022

Wooden Flower Vase
Wooden Flower Vase
Wooden Flower Vase
Wooden Flower Vase

Things that mean the same thing have to look the same. The opposite also applies: "If things do not mean the same thing, they should not look the same."
With this in mind let's look at the 5 most important guidelines for creating meaningful reports.

These tips are based upon the  International Business Communication Standards. The IBCS are practical proposals for the design of business communication published for free use under a Creative-Commons-Lizenz (CC BY-SA). In most cases, applying IBCS means the proper conceptual, perceptual and semantic design of charts and tables. One of the easier but also most important rule to rememeber is that, things that mean the same must look the same. With this in mind let's look at the five important guidelines to create meaningful reports.

1. Unify the Titles of Pages, Charts, and Tables
Every journalist will tell you that when you try to capture a readers attention, the title is the most important. The title is what draws the reader to exploring the article and simultaneously also allows them to judge whether it is of relevance to them. Similar principles apply to graphs and charts. It is important that you are clear about what the graph or chart entails by using a clear main title, axis titles and labels. Below an example of a recommended approach for assembling a chart:

  • Subject -  The subject of your chart should be clear from the main title. This could be your company, a division, country, or store name but must always include the variables that you have included in you chart (i.e., Revenue by Gender YTD). Although, the content of your chart is clear to you, an outsider may be left puzzled when looking at your graph if you did not clearly describe the variables included.

  • Unit Principles - The measure or variable has a certain unit attached to it - your profit could for instance be in euros or dollars. It is important to include this in your axis or title. The most widely used method is to simply add the unit-type in brackets behind the variable name (i.e. Revenue ($). 

  • Time period - The data you are displaying will always be over a certain time period. Always make sure to clearly deifne over which time period your data is displayed (i.e., Revenue by month FY21).

2. Present Time-series With Horizontal Axis
This recommendation applies to 95% of all charts. We distinguish between two different types of series: time and structure. Time series entails months, years, quarters, days and other time related data. You should always put time series on the horizontal axis. In most cases you should put structural comparison, like cities, locations, countries, projects or types of revenue on the vertical axis. However, in some cases if the time series is already displayed on the horizontal axis, the structural series can be displayed in a legenda.

3. Identify Scenarios by Fill Patterns
Dashboarding is all about comparisons. Let's say we are working with a comparison between expected outcome versus actual outcome which also includes a forecast. In this case, we use a solid fill with actual values, an outline with the plan and a hatched pattern for the forecast.

4. Highlight variances with green and red
As you see, IBCS recommendations call for simple charts in black white. This is because the IBCS philosophy is that colors should be reserved for more important things such as variances or deviations from the expected outcome. The approach here is as straightforward as possible. While the color red denotes negative variances, green denotes positive variances. Also, keep in mind that a negative variance is not necessarily a negative number. For example, an increase in costs is a positive value that is negative variance.

5. Use highlighting to get your message across
When creating dashboards, you need to highlight the important things to get your message across.

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