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:

http://theelearningcoach.com/resources/icon-collection/

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

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!

Report Layout in PowerPoint?

I was recently workshopping with a group of evaluators who had bravely submitted their work examples for group critique. In one instance, they had admitted that what I thought were text-heavy slides was actually a full written report. That’s right – they’d used PowerPoint for written report layout. Mind. Blown.

Then I started asking around. As it turns out, this is somewhat common. People find PowerPoint immensely easier to work with, particularly in terms of arranging text and graphics, than Word.

I get it. Totally. Evaluators don’t have time (or money) to learn fancy new software programs that make report layout simple. We’ve gotta work with what we have. And if it’s all going to end up as a PDF anyway, I suppose the software doesn’t make much of a difference. Just be sure to pay attention to two things:

1. Long reports need to be presented in portrait orientation. And this is possible in PowerPoint. Here’s a screenshot:

You can actually turn the orientation of your slides so that it looks more like a written report. In PowerPoint 2010, this is under the Design tab, within the Slide Orientation setting. Pretty cool, eh?

Why is this so important? Well, we are used to seeing slides in landscape (and the occasional chart or table) but we are used to reading long text in portrait orientation. And if we want people to be able to pay attention to what we are saying, rather than get distracted by internal questions like “Is she trying to give me a full report on PowerPoint slides?”, we have to work with the familiar.

2. Because PowerPoint works through textboxes, evaluators need to make sure the narrative text is set at an appropriate length.

Headers, call out boxes, and graphics are places where one can stretch the boundaries of margins in PowerPoint a bit more. But when placing the narrative text, it should be done such that the lines are no more than 8-12 words per line. (That’s 50-80 characters, depending on the font, for you folks that like to labor in long words.)

When our lines are longer than that (super easy to do when filling a landscape-oriented slide with a textbox), it gets difficult for the reader to track the text. Tracking the text is when a reader tries to finish one line and start the next. When the lines are too long, readers mistrack often, getting confused about which line is the next (and this interrupts comprehension and works against our intentions as evaluators).

So I’ll remain agnostic about the proper software program for report writing, as long as we can agree to pay attention to the components of legibility and comprehension research wherever we are.

Releasing the Evaluation Report Layout Checklist

So I made this lovely checklist of graphic design best practices as a product of my dissertation (Standing Rule: If you want to know the details of my dissertation, you’ll have to buy me a drink). It included input from a panel of graphic designers including Peter Brakeman, Christy Kloote, Chris Metzner, and Kevin Brady.

I’ve been having such a great time travelling around the country, giving workshops on the checklist and using graphic design to improve the way we communicate in evaluation. But I’ve gotten overwhelmed with requests for the checklist, so I’ve decided to make it freely available:
http://bit.ly/EvalReportLayoutChecklist

Enjoy! And do post comments on your use of the checklist. (Well, your nice comments anyway.)

Juice Analytics

Zach Gemignani, of Juice Analytics fame, gave the keynote at the AEA/CDC Summer Institute yesterday. I had followed their 30 Days to Context Connection list earlier last year, so I was super excited to witness the fun in person. His keynote speech focused on the 10 steps to becoming a Data Vizard. Yep, vizard.

Good tips in there, too. One was to follow the leaders – meaning, check out the awesome folks who have cut down some of the hard work out there on data visualization. Though I thought his list was a little slim (okay, he only had 45 minutes), he did point out the range of leaders out there, from Stephen Few to Jonathan Harris (Side note: Why only white men getting to lead the field of data viz?)

My favorite tip was to think like a designer. He said there’s a thin overlap of folks who are both data junkies and designers (that’s me). But those more on the data junkie side can make tiny adjustments to normal presentations that will help make a bigger impact. For example, choose one color for emphasis and use it to actually emphasize, not decorate. My hack job of his slide, illustrating this idea, is below.

Another tip was about choosing the right chart. For help on that task, check out Juice Analytics’ chart chooser. It’ll guide you through your data needs and let you download a chart template for Excel that is designed for clarity and beauty. Cool!

Eval + Comm

It had perhaps less than six words per slide. It had high quality graphics. It had a systematic and consistent placement of elements. But something about the presentation today still bugged the kernel of a graphic designer inside me.

The presenter had clearly read some basic literature on slideshow presentations (Presentation Zen is my fave) or heard me rant about this topic in the hallways. Like many of us who are clued in to the need for better communication of evaluation topics, he totally thought he knew what he was doing. Two major issues still need to be addressed for those of us who have Graphic Design for Evaluators 101 under our belts.

1. Pick a metaphor or theme and stick with it. The presentation in focus was on nonequivalent dependent variables. Sheesh, right? Normally, I’d suggest thinking of an awesome and relatable metaphor for your topic that can be consistently carried throughout the presentation. I will give $5 to whoever can come up with a good metaphor for nonequivalent dependent variables. In lieu of a metaphor, pick some theme – but just one. Today’s talk featured targets. You know, bull’s eyes. It related to internal validity, I get it. And the target icons were repeated throughout the presentation. This is good. But then odd elements were also chosen, like writing slide text on graphic images of post-it notes. The post-it note communicates draft quality, office work, perhaps even organization. But it didn’t relate to bull’s eyes at all. The post-it note, while cute, was conflicting with the main message. It may have also been…

2. Graphic overload. Adding more graphic elements to the presentation decreases its communication ability. If it isn’t necessary, eliminate it from the slide. Don’t put a border around it and call more attention to it. Likewise, the presentation had extraneous arrows and excessive animation. Like “chartjunk,” these elements distracted from the message. Slidejunk! I’m watching the alien genderless being wave around a dartboard, not listening to your message, my friend. When a client thinks back to your evaluation debriefing, surely it is not the silver alien you want them to be remembering. The presentation should support the speaker.

While we’re probably still patting ourselves on the back for discovering the power of stock photo sites, let’s move ever upward.