Visualizing Data

Using visuals enhances presentations and can help you tell a story. | Credit: Boston Atlantic Photography

Visuals are powerful communications tools that scientists are likely already familiar with. Scientists communicate through data, symbols, and graphs — some of the raw materials in good visuals. The challenge is to find the right balance of data, image, and narrative for the audience.

  1. Use the right visuals for the audience

    Tell a story. Paint a picture in people’s minds. Be sure the images are comprehensible, appropriate, and engaging for the specific audience. Data presented in the form of animations or infographics may suffice for more technically-literate audiences, while carefully-constructed images and verbal explanation might work better for another group.

  2. Keep it simple.

    Many people, including well-informed and educated people, struggle with numbers and statistics. Avoid using complex statistics and graphs.

Steps for designing a visual:

  1. Ask “What story does the data tell?”
  2. State the purpose of sharing the data.
  3. Determine the audience.
  4. Design an engaging narrative that will work for the audience and achieve the purpose.
  5. Choose the simplest way of illustrating the narrative and the underpinning data.
  6. Create the outline or structure of the graphic before the visuals.
  7. Choose which visual form (infographic, bar graph, pie chart, etc.) represents the data in the most accessible way.
  8. Test the visual on a sample audience and make edits.
  9. Publish.
DO DON'T
…identify a clear core message and build a simple visual around it. …overload the visual with multiple images and sources that confuse the core meaning.
…use pie charts and bar charts that show proportional data. Explain what the charts show and always explain scales and axes carefully. Use line graphs and scatterplot diagrams sparingly. …use complex tables in a presentation for a general audience.
…use familiar rounded fractions. For example, express 31% as "nearly a third." …use complex statistics or overly precise numbers.
…use visual metaphors for quantities. For example, explain mass or volume using familiar objects or landmarks. …use confusing metaphors not associated with the thing being described.

Managing copyright issues and finding copyright-free content

Copyright law governing the use of images can be complex to navigate. Always get permission to use photos or images you have not created yourself, unless they are copyright-free. However, if you are struggling to find the exact image you want, consider purchasing a rights-managed image from a licensing organization or online image bank such as Getty Images. These images also tend to be of higher quality. There may be some flexibility when using an image in an educational context; seek legal advice.

Alternatively you can filter Google image searches by usage rights, or filter Flickr images for creative commons images; these are normally free, but will need attribution.

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