Steps in showing information

Showing information involves 3 key steps:

Identify the story

The ‘story’ is what you are trying to say with the visual element.

To identify your story, first think about your aim. For example:

  • Do you want to convince the reader that heart disease among Australian men has increased since 1980?
  • Do you want the reader to know that a greater proportion of mammalian species are endangered than bird and reptile species?
  • Do you want to explain how to do something on a computer?

Each of these stories will require different kinds of information or data to create a visual display.

If your visual display is based on quantitative data (eg measurements, numerical observations), first find out what the data are telling you. That can influence how you display the data. For example:

  • Do you want the reader to see differences in the size of data values across several groups or locations?
  • Do you want the reader to see that 2 measures tend to change together (a correlation)? 
  • Do you want the reader to see that the values change over time in some way (a trend)?

The type of relationship that your data show, and that you want your readers to notice, will determine the type of visual display you create.

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Select the type of display

The next step is to select the type of visual display that best showcases your information or data, and therefore communicates your story or makes your case. It could be an illustration, quantitative data, a map, a diagram, a video, or a combination of these and other graphical elements.

Some types of visual displays are suited to showing certain types of information better than others. For example, changes in quantitative data over long periods of time are typically best represented by a line graph (see Choosing the right graph for your data). However, if your readers need to know specific data values, a table may be the most appropriate choice of display.

Whichever type of visual display you choose for information or data, it needs to be clear, simple and attractive. Be certain about what you want your audience to understand after viewing the display, and check that the display achieves this. 

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Create the display

Creating the display of information may involve activities such as tabling, graphing, mapping, sizing, colouring, formatting, illustrating and photographing. Each type of display will follow certain conventions or methods. Becoming more familiar with these conventions and adding some functional design will help you achieve professional results (see General conventions for visual displays).

It is useful to be aware of how your visual display is seen. Visual perception is selective – we focus on some things and ignore others. Characteristics of a scene that stand out – such as brightness, colour, contrast or orientation – might get our attention, or we might recognise a familiar pattern that keeps our eyes busy. Cognitive factors and memory also play a role in what our eyes are drawn to. For example, designers and advertising executives play on our emotions in visual displays to sell products.

However, designing for information and data is a little different. Rather than focusing on advertising principles of emotional pull and attraction, information-based displays should aim for clarity and accuracy to increase reader understanding.

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