Note from Beth: I met Matthew Scharpnick, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Elefint Designs, a strategic design studio that works with good causes, at the Data for Good Conference in Chicago. One area that he works on is data visualization for nonprofits. See for example, his case study about how to create an informative data visualization that provides context around a complex and controversial topic. Since he does data visualization 24/7, I asked him what his best advice was for people who work at nonprofits who don’t do data visualization full-time. He graciously offered to write up his tips as a guest post.
Five Tips for Nonprofit Data Storytelling by Matthew Scharpnick
When data is handled properly and displayed effectively, it can help change minds — and change the world.
Today’s social sector organizations need to be able to gather, analyze and share data. This is especially true for groups that are looking to demonstrate their impact to donors, staff, boards, and other key constituents. For these groups, understanding how to properly visualize data has become increasingly important.
We know this because we regularly hear from organizations that are struggling to develop effective data visualizations.
They understand the importance and power of data. But they don’t know where to begin. Worse yet, they produce reports and graphics that present their data without clarity or in ways that can be misleading.
As a result, many well-intentioned organizations are making poor choices with their data visualizations — providing confusing or distorted information.
As a co-founder of a design firm, I work to help social sector organizations avoid these pitfalls. Not every organization has the staff or budget to professionally design every graphic or chart it produces. But by understanding some of the basic principles of information design — and knowing what to avoid — even the most resource-strapped group can produce effective and accurate visualizations.
So, in that spirit, if you’re serious about presenting eye-catching visualizations with integrity, you should always try to remember the following 6 rules:
Think like your reader
Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to make our information stand out and attract attention.
But how do we do that in an era when people have so much information vying for that attention?
At the beginning of the process, think about your target reader. How old is she? What does she care about? Where is she most likely to go for information?
Some organizations take the step of interviewing their target audiences and spend time developing user personas that guide their work. But even if you don’t have the time or budget to do that, you should pause and develop your own mental sketch of who you’re designing for.
Throughout the process, you should take steps back from your work and think about whether you are providing her what she needs.
1. Context is king
Your first goal in creating a data visualization is to tell a story that the viewer can easily understand — and the best way to accomplish that goal is to provide context to your presentation.
Give people points of comparison to understand how the data relates to larger trends, other geographies, etc. Within a graph, for example, you can call out high and low points, beginning and end points, and other key pieces of data to help viewers find the most important information quickly.
2. Avoid unnecessary distractions
Remove elements of the design that don’t add to the story. Often, we try to pack too much data into infographics and don’t take steps to highlight the most relevant and important information.
Your goal as a designer is to include as much relevant information as possible in each part of the design without overwhelming the reader with unnecessary information.
One effective technique is to reduce the weight of items that cannot be removed, such as important grids or axes, with approaches such as thinning lines or making colors lighter.
3. Labels matter
It is often easier to understand data when labels are clearly explained and are placed adjacent to the data.
While some designers are tempted to use a key — this type of presentation forces viewers to look back and forth and can interfere with their understanding of the information. Explore the work of Edward Tufte to learn more about the specifics of these last two techniques and many more.
4. Strive for surprises
Surprises are often the most engaging part of a piece of information design. People like to find pieces of data that teach them something new. If these new pieces of information are counter-intuitive, it makes the visualization even more fascinating.
As you’re looking for ways to tell visual stories with your data, look for unexpected facts and trends — and think about how you can show that information in a way that illuminates the surprise.
5. Be honest
While you must find data that relates to the story you want to share, you have to balance this with the need to let the data tell the story. Cherry-picking data to push a certain agenda is lazy and unethical and should be avoided. Even though you’re trying to advance a cause, you have a responsibility to avoid twisting data or leaving out key information in the name of that cause.
To see how these principles play out in the creation of an infographic, my team at Elefint Designs has produced a step-by-step guide that walks you through how we developed a data visualization about the national debt. I invite you to check this case study and think about how you can apply the techniques we used to your next project.
Matthew Scharpnick is the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Elefint Designs, a strategic design studio that works with good causes. Combining strategy with design, Elefint helps nonprofits, NGOs and other social sector organizations tell compelling stories and achieve greater impact. Matthew specializes in branding, design strategy, storytelling, and data visualization.