Ever want to learn how to make better graphs? Check out a Jean-luc Doumont presentation sometime. This Summit Summary captures the essence of his STC Summit presentation, based on his book “Trees, Maps, and Theorems, about ‘effective communication for rational minds'”, where he discussed how to choose the right graph and optimize the display to send the right kind of message.
Jean-luc began by showing us how we can be visual instead of verbal with graphs by stepping back and analyzing how we use the wrong graphs for displaying data. He suggested that we don’t give graphs a structure like we would give papers and speeches, but to use labels, legends, and colors correctly. For example, using proximity when adding labels to lines, charts, and bars and avoid legends or sequential order when possible.
He explained that graphs have to be intuitive for the reader to understand quickly and easily. Show the reader the information, rather than asking the reader to decipher color codes, shapes, or confusing labels to then understand the data. Give them the data. To Jean-luc, a best practice for graphs and charts recommends that we keep only the relevant labels and avoid mentioning the color in the caption. He repeatedly emphasized that technical communicators should not use 3D scatter plots because it isn’t humanly possible to chart a specific point in space on an X,Y,Z graph. Again, the intent is to design the graph to show a message.
He provided some excellent tips for fixing graphs when using PowerPoint. Most column charts can be easily converted to bar charts, which can be a better way to compare lengths. Also, along with comparing numbers in a bar chart, the bars must start from 0. When you chop the axis numbers, you can greatly confuse readers—who may think that one set of data is extremely different than another, when the difference is really minimal, and more obvious if the bars were not cut.
Jean-Luc concluded with some frank commentary on examples of what to avoid, and frank guidance on how to can create better graphs without misrepresenting the data. His book Trees, Maps, and Theorems, about “effective communication for rational minds,” can be ordered online at http://www.treesmapsandtheorems.com/. I highly recommend visiting his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/principiae, on which he shares his witty opinions about signs, graphs, and interfaces.