The Cost of Bad Design

The next time someone asks me how good data visualization actually contributes to a better bottom line, I’m going to retell this story.

Some time ago, I sat in a meeting with 11 other people. We were reviewing evaluation findings, presented via charts, which were created by another researcher (not present). You know this scene. You’ve been there a hundred times. The group spent 20 minutes just trying to dissect a single chart. It wasn’t the data that was confusing. It wasn’t the chart type, either. But it was the little things like color and labeling that confused the 11 of us (an educated group, too, I should point out). So what did that bad design cost?

6 people are paid $600/day, which means we spent $150 on their confusion
1 person at $400/day = $17
1 person at $300/day =  $13
1 person at $250/day = $10
2 people at $1,000/day = $83

So one poor chart design cost our group $273, which is actually more than the daily rate (salary and benefits) for one of the meeting attendees.

Ouch. And this doesn’t include the time it took for the report author to develop the poor chart in the first place, or the time that person will put in to make the chart clearer. Bad design is expensive. Thus, investment in some professional development around good design or even consultation with an actual graphic design may literally pay off in the end.

Icon Construction

Icons or symbols are an “easy” way to organize information throughout an evaluation report. I say “easy,” but I really mean easy for the reader. Symbol sets provide mental organizational structure. They often aren’t so easy for the report author, though. Usually it can be difficult to find a set of symbols through stock image sites that adequately fits the information being conveyed in the report.

Recently, I found this collection of icon sets – so awesome, lots in there, fairly general:

You’ll quickly see there’s a ton to dig through. Like the search for good images, it can often take more time than its worth to find a good match to your reporting needs. So here’s a quick way to make your own.

In this example, I’m trying to compare key indicators (rates of graduation, obesity, and home ownership) between Michigan, our nemesis to the south Indiana, and the national average. This is what the typical boring table would look like, yes?

I wanted to make similar-looking icons to represent each state. In the case of states, the shapes of each state could work, but purchasing state shapes via a stockphoto site was going to set me back about $30 (and think about the shape of Wyoming – would anyone really recognize it?) .

So I made icons myself in about 5 minutes. I started by typing the two-letter state abbreviations in a cool font (this is Gills Sans Condensed) and making them large:

Then I used “Text Fill” and selected white and “Text Outline” and selected black. I made the text box itself transparent, or no fill. Easy enough to get the cute outline letters, yes? For the shape, I just inserted a circle and used the “Shape Fill” and “Shape Outline” features:

I gave each state it’s own color to boost content organization even more. Then I placed the letters over the circles and grouped each letter with each circle:

The circles and the font really give it that feel of an icon set. Now I can use these to spark up my table:

Ok, I know it doesn’t do much to add icons to one table. But when we use the icon system throughout the report, we build a predictable organizational structure that speeds recognition and aids comprehension. See what I mean?


And I did it all without the aid of fancy graphic design software programs, with about 5 minutes of experimentation. Try it out for yourself! Enjoy!

Handling Colorblindness

Dealing with potential audience colorblindness isn’t as mysterious as it seems. (And as an added bonus, by way of handling colorblindness, you’ll also fortify your work against the dim bulb in the projector or the color settings on the presenter laptop that skew your established color scheme.)

One product, Color Oracle, can be downloaded right to your computer – it’ll run through your selected documents and show you what it would look like to someone with the various types of colorblindess. (Howeva, I couldn’t get it to download when I tried.)

Vischeck can do the same sort of thing online or on your computer. I uploaded a line graph produced with the default Excel colors:


As seen with red-green colorblindness:

This simulated image is pretty hard to follow, isn’t it? All the better to have good legend labeling. Or highlight the most important line with one color and make the rest of them gray. You can handle it.

Here I Vischecked a slide I replicated from all the others I’ve seen that make me cringe. The slide on the right shows what it would look like with red-green colorblindness (deuteranope).

Yeah, that’s terrible. But the original image on the left is pretty bad in the first place! So it isn’t really about the red-green color combination – it’s about the contrast of the two colors. Below I still used red and green to make my original slide, but note how much more readable it is both before and after Vischeck:

So don’t be afraid of color combinations – but do focus on making sure you have a light-dark pairing that will hold up no matter the projector quality, presentation laptop color settings, or audience impairment.

Slow Reveal

Most of the time I advocate for replacing words with images when presenting slideshows. But sometimes the slide just needs to have a lot of words, like this:

But when we have a lot of words on a slide and we’re truly trying to get people’s minds oriented toward our presentation content, overwhelming their field of vision with so much at once can cause them to just mentally check out (or check their email).

Here’s a strategy for presenting those word-filled slides that can better support audience comprehension – the slow reveal.

Basically, just reveal one point at a time. You start by constructing the full slide, as I’ve shown above. That slide has 3 objectives plus 1 title, so I’ll duplicate it such that I end up with four slides that look the same. Then, just delete one item from each slide, working backward:

This way, when I start at the beginning and work through the slide deck, I’m presenting just one point at a time. This lets my audience focus on what I’m saying (instead of reading ahead and not fully paying attention). The slow reveal also better helps the audience build the mental concept I’m trying to convey.

So ultimately, I end up with four times the number of slides. But don’t let that scare you. It’s the exact same amount of content, same number of minutes talking.

Hot tip: Make each element on the slide a separate text box. So the final slide shown above has four text boxes (and a star). Using separate text boxes makes it a million times easier to delete individual items so the slideshow can build. I’ve seen people try to keep all the objectives in one text box, while attempting the same type of slow reveal. But keeping them in the same text box often introduces the chance for spacing errors. If just one space is different during the slide build, it’ll totally get noticed (in a bad way). Just use separate text boxes.

Related hot tip: Don’t try to compile it all into one slide and use animation to reveal each element. Animation distracts when you want the audience to focus. Animation is also often slower than anticipated, and sometimes doesn’t work at all in certain webinar platforms. Just use separate text boxes.

Proper Placement of Chart Legends

In my dissertation study (probably the most boring four words to start any blog post), I saw a lot of evaluation reports that grouped all tables and graphs into the appendix. Tables, graphs, and other graphics really must be placed right next to the narrative describing them. Why? When we flip back and forth between pages, we impair working memory’s ability to make sense of the associated words and images. Truly, the ideal situation for our brains is extremely close placement. Whenever we have to seek-and-find to match up content, we hurt cognition. That’s why I was super excited to see Jeff Johnson talking about charts and their legends in his book, Designing with the Mind in Mind.

Jeff also pointed out how it is hard for people to distinguish legend colors when produced in default mode (so two lessons here). This is what the typical chart looks like in Excel, with some modifications I made to clean it up:

The blues and purples do get hard to distinguish, don’t they? So Jeff recommends enlarging the legend colors so they are both more easily distinguished and closer to the actual lines they are associated with, reducing the need for an actual eye movement between the line and it’s corresponding legend entry. You can’t really do this in Excel, though. So I faked it, by inserting a square, matching the color, and putting it right over the line in the original legend. See here:

It’s an improvement, yes. However, there’s still a lot of searching to match up each line to it’s legend entry. So I got this idea from Storytelling with Data to get rid of the legend entry altogether. In the example below, I’ve inserted text boxes with the correct word from the legend, so it is totally obvious which line goes with what and the need for the search-and-find in the legend is removed. Cognition supported. Oh yeah.

What Exactly is Happening in this 3D Chart?

When giving advice about chart styles, one of my friends likes to say “save 3D for the movies.” She’s right – research shows that 3D charts actually slow reader comprehension. I’ve long advocated for the use of ChartTamer as a friendly way to restrict data visualization to that which will actually support reader cognition. In a recent webinar I heard Cole Nussbaumer at Storytelling with Data give another compelling reason why we shouldn’t graph in 3D – Excel doesn’t use the front line or the back line of the 3D bar when aligning with the y axis – it graphs the midpoint of the bar. What??? Yes, she said Excel uses the middle of the 3D rendering as the determiner of the data point. I didn’t believe it. How could anything so antithetical to cognition actually survive in this sink-or-swim society? So I tried it myself:

Here is a 3D column chart of some fake data about customer satisfaction with prices in various departments of a natural health food store, before and after their physical move to a new location:

Now I know I’m breaking some serious graphing rules here, but stick with me. I super enlarged the y axis and honed in on one range of it so that we could really see where the gridlines line up with the tops of the columns.

See the blue bar in Produce? The actual data point for that blue bar is 85. Neither the front line, the back line, nor the midpoint of the top of the column are at 85. See the blue bar for Beauty? The actual data point there is 83. Again, none of the possible points of measurement on the 3D column are accurately expressing 83. Maybe more like 82.75, but definitely clearly absolutely not reaching the gridline marking 83.

I selected the exact same raw data table and created a similar column chart, just in 2D:

This time the blue bar in Produce is exactly at 85 and the blue bar in Beauty accurately represents the data point of 83.

I wasn’t able to reproduce Cole’s assertion that Excel uses the midpoint of the 3D column. But it is pretty clear that the audience misinterpretation often cited in research that results from the use of 3D charting is due to more than the complexity of analyzing in the third dimension – it is also because the columns simply aren’t accurately visualized.

My 2011 Personal Annual Report

Worst Font Contest

Two years ago I ran this tiny contest on my social networking platforms for the worst font ever. Far and away, Comic Sans was the winner. Here are the others that deserved mention, along with the messages they tend to communicate:

Jokerman: Also says “Fajitas Tonite!” (spelled with “nite” instead of “night,” for sure)

Papyrus: Also says “yoga studio” or “Egypt”

Okay, I’m joking. Kinda.

But with these examples we can see how our font choices communicate for us, outside of the actual words we type with these fonts. Still, these examples are pretty easy targets. And they are two years old!

So dig a little deeper and type your new nominee for Worst Font Ever into the comments below. Winner gets a high-five.

PS. Font nerds unite!




Here’s a procedure I use all the time to help me select color combinations for my reporting. It makes use of this great, free, online program that takes all the scientific color theory stuff and translates it for those of us without a MFA.

First, I head to my client’s website and take a screenshot of their logo.

Then I go to this cool program, called Adobe Kuler (pronounced “color,” I’m pretty sure) at This is a color picking website. Once you sign in, you can upload your image. Here I have my client’s logo I just stole from their website. And the program picks out the exact colors from the logo.

Once I save, I can click a little sliderule icon that gives me the RGB color codes. With those color code numbers, I can customize the palette of my word-processing and presentation software programs to match my colors to those of my client.

I just write down those RGB color codes and head over to Word. Here I’m showing a screenshot where I transferred the RGB codes from Kuler into the Custom Colors option (right-click on, say, Heading 1 in the Styles menu and select Modify, then click on the arrow by the color menu, go down to More Colors, and click on the Custom tab).

In the same area you can modify the font, justification, etc. Once you have set up your page layout the way you’d like, go to the Themes button and select “Save Current Theme.” This will allow you to access to these settings on other Word documents and even in other Office programs like Excel or PowerPoint. I like to name the theme after my client and use the theme consistently in all of my work with them.

Why go to all that trouble? Because now you have an intentional tone that communicates consistency and belonging with your client’s work, and that’s what evaluation should be.

On the Struggle of Locating High-Quality Images

I’ve been pretty vocal about the need for greater use of images in our evaluation communications. And while I can get most people to vow to halt the use of clip art, finding high-quality images can be a total pain. What’s at our fingertips (i.e., available on Google Images) is a problem because it isn’t often licensed for free use and it sort of sucks. I mean, lots of what’s available via Google Images are the cliche, emotionless images that actually work against the connection we’re trying to make with our audience. Here’s a sampling of what to avoid:

The alien dudes – totally un-connectable

The kumbaya symbol of diversity – so overused, it’s a turnoff

The handshake – cliche and ubiquitous

Susan Kistler, Executive Director of the American Evaluation Association, blogged about other free sites to locate high-quality images and I suggest you bookmark these places.

But oh! The time you can spend scrolling through images! Hours lost!

What’s the solution? Just like you wouldn’t wander around the grocery store aimlessly, you should go into the stockphoto site with a list of appropriate images in mind. Get really specific in the site’s search engine. Tell that thing what you want! Make it do your bidding! Which brings me to the most important point of this post:

You have to know what you want.

The most efficient method of high-quality communication in our evaluation reporting is to invest in 30 minutes of visual thinking. Take this as your hall pass to get out of the office with a sketch pad and just doodle. What images come to mind when you think about your topic, your client, your message? Brainstorm, sketch, and play. Grab a small group of people and ask them to do some free association with you (i.e., “What images come to mind when I say ‘connect'”?). Then you’ll be much better prepared to shop the stock photo site like you shop at the supermarket – as quickly as possible.