Digital cameras make taking pictures easy, but owning one doesn’t mean someone takes great pictures. Computers made it easier to fix typographical errors, but using one doesn’t make someone a great author. Microsoft Excel makes it easy to build charts, but it won’t stop you from visualizing your data as a cluttered, incomprehensible mess.
It’s far too easy to make a quick pie chart that utterly fails at communicating the point that you found obvious as you combed through the data. That’s where Stephanie D.H. Evergreen’s “Effective Data Visualization” book comes to the rescue.
Reading Evergreen’s book is a bit like sitting in a high school or college class next to a genius who knows the subject probably better than the teacher does. She tackles each problem with excitement. When you ask if you can copy her notes, she not only lets you, but explains each part of them in detail, so you’ll understand it on your own.
Evergreen is so passionate about good design in data visualizations that her doctorate in interdisciplinary research included a a dissertation on graphic design in data reporting. She trains companies and organizations on the principles of good data design and writes regularly about the topic.
Her philosophy is sensible: people should be able to look at your visualization and get the point immediately. Otherwise, they may struggle to find the same conclusion you did, or may even misinterpret a bad visualization.
Evergreen has researched design and perception and applied it to the art of impactful business graphics, so you can read her book, learn her skills and “become the meeting rock star, ushering everyone through important decisions,” as she puts it.
Evergreen’s unconstrained, informal and humorous writing style can give you the impression that you’re sitting in the same room as a genius and can listen to her every brilliant tangential thought, but since you can read the book at your own pace, you can still keep up with her.
The book says it will help you use the right chart for the right data. There are chapters on how to visualize single numbers, comparisons, relative performance, survey responses, parts of a whole, correlation and regression, and more.
Aside from learning which charts to use in each situation, Evergreen also explains step-by-step how to build these visualizations in Excel, with examples that she rates by level of difficulty that she calls “Excel Ninja Levels.” Icons of ninjas, with expressions ranging from calm to aggressive, let you know how difficult it will be to complete each task.
The first example of visualizing a single number has an Excel Ninja Level of 0, because it’s just one number. You can probably do it in PowerPoint or a favorite graphic design program. She’ll even tell you what fonts she used and their sizes. Most importantly, she explains why the strategy is effective and what concerns you should have when using this technique.
Late on in the same chapter, she explains how to use Excel to build a chart that displays apple symbols to indicate the quantity of fruit servings eaten daily by specific families. It takes more than pages of instructions and well-captioned screenshots, to get to a chart that looks reasonably close to a USA Today infographic. And when you do get there, your first thought may even be “wait, I just did this in Excel? Am I becoming a data nerd?”
There’s also a $10 companion book, “The Data Visualization Sketchbook,” in which Evergreen provides tools for testing out visualization ideas in pencil before committing to a design, and includes an example of her own sketches that she used in a project to report the results of a client’s customer satisfaction survey.
At 352 pages, “Effective Data Visualization” is a lot to read and work through in one sitting. But if you treat it like a master class, you may just get the sense that Evergreen is high-fiving you and calling you a rock star when you complete a visualization at Excel Ninja Level 10.
Effective Data Visualization
The Right Chart for the Right Data (Second Edition)
By Stephanie D.H. Evergreen
Sage Publishing. 352 pages. $58