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  • Steve Hulmes

How do you avoid style-over-substance when visualising data?

Updated: Mar 28

It's surprising how some charts are praised for their visual appeal, yet upon closer analysis, they prove to be overly complex and fail to convey a clear message. The ultimate goal of data visualisation is to make information come alive and be easily understood by viewers. 

However, I've seen supposedly award-winning visualisations that took me a considerable amount of time to grasp and it appears that judges often value the "cleverness" of a visualisation over its ability to quickly deliver a message. 

It’s a trap that analysts can easily fall into (I know, I’ve seen many examples in my workshops!). To ensure you avoid over-complicating visualisations, particularly if aiming for what I call an "explanatory" chart rather than an "exploratory" one, here are a couple of tips:

Stick to simple familiar charts.

Use commonly understood chart types. While modern software offers a plethora of options, using less common charts like radar or waterfall charts may confuse general audiences. Exceptions can be made if you know that ALL of the audience is certain to be familiar with a specific chart type.

Give your chart a speed test! 

Ensure your chart communicates its message in under 10 seconds, preferably under 5 seconds if it's part of a presentation. Test its effectiveness by having someone unfamiliar with the data read and interpret it. If it takes longer than 10 seconds, consider simplifying, translating the data and/or improving labelling.

Ultimately, visualisations succeed because they tap into our 'iconic memory,' allowing us to effortlessly absorb information almost subconsciously. However, this can be undermined if your visuals are not simple and your audience needs to re-engage their brains to decipher the message. 

To find out more about our data visualisation workshop and to view Sophic's full programme follow this link click here.

However, if you’d like to discuss a more bespoke solution to your analysts’ development needs, let's have a no obligation chat to see whether Sophic can help. Just email Steve at

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