8 tips to make better charts

8 tips to make better charts
Image: Bárbara Abbês
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At Quartz, we use a lot of charts. And, unlike many newsrooms, we train all our journalists to create them rather than relying solely on a specialized team. We think anyone can make great charts with a little bit of guidance and practice—here is some of the advice we give to our journalists.

Know what are you trying to show

Before you get to chart-making be sure you know what your goal is. You’re using your charts to communicate information. What are you trying to convey? Try to be more specific than say “Healthcare jobs are rising in the US.” Think more like, “Healthcare jobs are rising faster than other major industries.”

Use charts like sentences

Your charts should say one thing clearly. If cramming five or six series into one chart confuses more than it informs, make them into separate charts. If you know what you’re trying to show, you already know what your sentence is, so stick to it.

Charts should make sense in isolation

We ask our journalists to make sure each of their charts makes sense out out of context of the story. People often skim articles, and they often skim your memos and presentations, so it’s worth asking: If someone came across your chart without the context of a memo or presentation, would they be able to understand it?

Don’t make someone work to understand your chart

Show your chart to someone else. Ask them what their takeaway is. If it’s not what you intended, you’re not done yet. This can be frustrating, but try to be patient. If someone doesn’t understand what you are trying to show it’s usually your fault, not theirs. Remember, you’re making the chart so that others can understand, not so you can reinforce what you already know.

Have a template and keep it sparse

If you’re showing multiple charts, make sure they’re the same dimensions, or at least the same width.

Make all of your charts in the same tool so that the fonts, spacing, and margins are consistent. Use colors from the same palette every time you make a chart. This will breed the visual consistency in your charts that people expect in professional work.

Here’s a tutorial on how to make your Microsoft Excel charts a uniform size. If you’re using a chart outside of the Microsoft Suite, be sure to right click on the background of the chart and select “Save as Picture.” Don’t make a screenshot.

Quartz originally created our own tool to ensure this type of consistency by default. We now use the more fully featured Datawrapper.

Try to use as few colors as possible in your chart. Don’t use 3D effects or shadows.

Keep it legible at small sizes

Your charts will be viewed on full-sized desktop monitors and tiny phone screens. Keep your text sizes large enough to be read on those small devices. Depending on how you’re using your charts, words that are the small, but legible 12px, may be shrunk down to the inscrutable 6px on a phone.

Limit the amount of data you’re showing. Similarly to fonts, if you have 240,000 pixels of area for your lines and bars on a desktop monitor, you might only have 60,000 pixels on a phone. Limit the number of series you are charting, and the number of data points in each series to only what is needed. If you’re showing the trend over years, you don’t need a data point for every day.

Remember that not everything should be charted

Charts are great, but they’re not always the best way to communicate information. Sometimes writing is more effective than a chart, but there’s another option that’s often overlooked: a simple table.

The table may not be sexy, but sometimes it’s the best way to get your point across. Especially when you have structured information that isn’t directly comparable.

Further Reading

Stop making charts when a table is better

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