Why making graphs is not as easy as you think

Bad graphs:

  • are at best confusing, and at worst misleading
  • can lead to the wrong actions, or lack of action
  • give data nerds a bad rep.

Good graphs:

  • are intuitive and require little reader effort
  • are visually appealing
  • contain data that best communicate the overall ‘story’
  • make the data ‘shine’
  • uphold principles of scientific publishing.

The main aim of a good graph is to show the relationships between data. Graphs can be used to:

  • compare the magnitude of data values or measurements
  • show changes over time or across a distribution
  • demonstrate how 2 or more variables are associated.

To be successful, graphs should:

  • have 1 message per visual
  • be clear, and typically simple
  • be based on scientific principles, so that visuals
    • are accurate
    • are unbiased
    • are accessible
    • are consistent
    • draw on visual design practices to best communicate the evidence.

See Which graph should I use? for more tips on creating good graphs.