Visualizing Data: The Essentials

“Without data, you are just another person with an opinion.”

– Andreas Schleicher

So, why is it that we create presentations?

The answer to this (most times) is because we have an important message, detail or data to share with our audience.

But, it is how we share this information that is important.

Throughout this blog, I have spoken at length about telling stories through imagery, as well as various interactive tools and data presenting methods. All of these have one thing in common; they all utilize visuals as a way of imparting their message.


You only have to look at cave paintings to find the answer. Visualisation has helped humans communicate their ideas or tell a story for eons. This has also helped listeners understand and benefit from the message.

Visuals tap into the way our brains work, particularly the role of memory and eyesight, in processing information placed before you. Large data is broken down into chunks and parallel connections are drawn.

While long-term memory focuses on the bigger picture based on past experiences, short-term or working memory does the opposite. It breaks a big scene into three smaller portions before storing relevant information.

3 building blocks of data visualisation:

Form – includes length, shape, size, borders and alignment

Dimension – 2D or 3D structure

Colour – focus on intensity, shades and hues.

“Data by itself is useless. Data is only useful if you apply it.”

– Todd Park

But how do you exploit this attribute or extract the best data before you create your slides?


To understand how to pick the right data and use effective ways to present it, you need to study your goal.

  • Explanatory –

Do you want to use data to explain and solve a customer’s problem? Most visualised data found in business scenarios fall into this category – teach or steer your audience towards a particular path.

  • Exploratory –

Do you want your audience to compare scenarios, ideas, activity or results? Use data sets that provide multiple dimensions, makes them ask questions and seek answers from the visuals.


Simple enough! Think of your data as a language. If attributes –form, dimension and colour – are its alphabet, then patterns become the words. Together they work together to visualise your sentence.

To generate identifiable patterns from a data visual, draw inspiration from Gestalt Principles of classifying single elements into groups. Arrange your data visuals based on how your mind forms patterns.

Highlight important patterns and down play others using:

Similarity – place similar objects within a group

Distance – use horizontal alignment to show close or detached relationship between elements

Continuity and connection – use the rule of 3 in design to connect different elements

Symmetry – use proportion or balance to group diverse objects together

How do you visualise your information? Do you follow these principles to create visuals out of data sets?

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