Design Your Visualization

You may not get the perfect design on your first try, or even your second! Thinking like a designer takes time and effort. You will build your skills over time. As you refine your data presentations, you will also learn more about your audience’s preferences, especially your internal audience: who prefers tables over charts, who prefers color to grayscale. Over time, you will not only build up your data storytelling skills, but those of your colleagues, as well.

To design and refine your visualization, you will:

  • Select the right visualization
  • Create your visual
  • Focus your audience
  • Craft your headline
  • Refine your story and your visual

Select the right visualization

The right visualization can make or break your story, whether you are presenting an internal PowerPoint presentation on your budget or designing an evaluation report for mass printing. Choosing the visualization that best displays your data and tells your story can be challenging. We are most familiar with bar, column pie and scatter plot charts, but there many varieties you can use depending on the message you want to convey.

If you are struggling with this decision, a great resource for finding the right visualization is The Data Visualisation Catalogue, a repository of every chart under the sun with a built-in tool that allows you to search by function. You can find the best charts for comparing data, which will be different than those that demonstrate proportion, relationships or parts of a whole.

Create your visual

Your visual can be an Excel bar graph, a scatter plot or a Visio graphic. If you are using Excel, the basic charts it delivers are not always pretty—and that is okay! The rest of this process will help you refine your chart to better tell your story in a visually appealing way.

Focus your audience

It is important to focus your audience on your story and lead them through the chart visually, without a lot of explanation required. You can do this in two ways: De-cluttering and emphasizing. There are some great print resources that expound on this, check out the data visualization books we have recommended in our toolkit.


If there are too many visual elements in a chart, it can be hard to interpret it quickly. In her book Storytelling with Data, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic recommends the following to maximize the comprehension of your audience:

  • Removing the chart border, gridlines, background and data markers
  • Simplifying axis labels (e.g. shortening January to Jan)
  • Labeling data directly instead of including a legend
  • Using consistent color between your data and your labels

You can also use this decision tree from Good Charts by Scott Berinato.

You want to draw your audience’s eyes to the right places on the chart, in the right order, by emphasizing certain items while de-emphasizing others. Here are some methods of emphasizing to focus your audience:
  • Color
  • Size
  • Outline, underline or other enclosure
  • Bold or italics
  • White space
  • Alignment

When creating a chart from this table:

Number of Responses
4 - Very Much 20
3 - Somewhat 26
2 - A Little 4
1 - Not at All 2

Excel will provide you with this column chart:


What steps led to the final visualization?

  • De-cluttering:
    • Removed the chart grid, border, background and vertical axis
    • Directly labeled each column with its value
    • Removed the line from the horizontal axis
  • Emphasizing
    • Changed the colors to reflect a continuum (and they pass the color blindness test!)
    • Reduced the white space between each of the columns
    • Added active and descriptive text, highlight some text with appropriate colors
    • Used bold in the chart description to draw attention
    • Left aligned the chart description

Craft your headline

Once you have the visualization set, you need to add your narrative. The most important narrative for your visualization is the chart title.

Writing a chart title is like writing a headline. You want your audience to understand both the story you are trying to convey and what you want them to do with the information. Here are some tips for writing effective chart titles:

  • Use active language
    • This program was a success! The majority of participants indicated that the program very much or somewhat changed their opinion about the importance of service.
  • Convey the story and the action, if there is one
    • Only 25% of individuals were satisfied with our program. We need to understand what went wrong and put together a plan to address the issues.
  • Keep it simple, the title is a headline and the chart is the content
    • Too much information: This program was a success! When we asked participants, “How much did this program change your opinion about the importance of service,” 20 people said very much, 26 said somewhat, 4 said a little and 2 said not at all.
    • Better: This program was a success! All but 6 participants said this program at least somewhat changed their opinion about the importance of service.

Refine your story and your visual

It is always important to involve individuals who are not as immersed in the data as you are. Find a few folks who are willing to look at your presentation or report and give you honest feedback.

When you think you are done, take one last look at your visualization and ask:

  • Have I removed all of the extraneous chart elements?
  • Have I effectively emphasized the salient points?
  • Do the title, data labels and other textual elements effectively convey my point?

Thinking like a designer takes time and effort. Try not to be discouraged if developing stellar data visualizations requires some trial and error.