Three Key Principles of Visual Design in Excel

Visual Design is a concept that many people don’t think about when using Excel.  However, given how much Excel’s visual display capabilities have improved over the years, the concept is becoming more and more important.  There are a number of great books on Visual Design and they all have very similar themes.

The following post is intended to summarize these themes with three major principles.  These are simply three things you should keep in mind whenever creating an Excel output.  Below each principle, I’ve included some examples of how the principle can be tactically utilized.  Please note that, while Visual Design is primarily relevant for charts and graphs, it can also be applied to most other Excel outputs as well.

Remove Non-Essential Components

In his book, the Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte coined the phrase chartjunk, which represents anything in a chart that is not required to understand the components of your data.  The term chartjunk and the definition clearly imply that anything falling under this classification should be removed.  By removing the unimportant elements of your outputs, you allow the important aspects of your data to better stand out.  People vary with how they interpret what’s important and what’s not, but by keeping this principle in mind while you work, you’ll significantly improve the Visual Design of your outputs.

Tactical Uses:

  • Use soft gray lines in place of dark black lines
  • Remove legends and titles when they are redundant
  • Remove any excessive formatting
    • Remove 3D effects
    • Remove borders
    • Remove background pictures

Emphasize Important Data

Every output you create gives you a chance to tell a story.  If you’re in a situation where you absolutely need to get a message across to your audience, don’t leave that responsibility to the end user.  Make it as easy as possible for your audience to interpret and understand your point.  Highlighting the important aspects of your output guides your audience towards understanding the purpose of your work.  Additionally, if you use conditional formatting, the emphasis can also bring attention to areas of concern.

Tactical Uses:

Design with a User Focus

Few people design their outputs with a focused attention towards the person they’re handing it off to.  We often make the assumption that, “if I can understand it, so will my audience.”  While this sometimes works out, it’s still important to put yourself in the end user’s shoes and imagine looking at your outputs for the first time.  What additional context does this person need?  How will he or she read and interpret this data?  What would be the first question this person asks?  By asking yourself these questions and taking into consideration the audience’s perspective, you’ll be able to better address their needs and thus create a more powerful output.  While there is some conflict between this last principle and the first one mentioned, finding a balance between the two is what Visual Design is all about.

Tactical Uses:

  • Include documentation
  • Include a source citation
  • Include a units measure when appropriate
  • Use the appropriate chart to display data
    • Don’t use pie charts to show composition, use bar charts instead
    • Use stacked bar charts to show composition over time
    • Use line charts for trends
  • If black and white printing is likely to be used, adjust the colors accordingly

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