Chances are, when you are writing about your organisation’s work you focus on the words, and maybe photographs, to tell your story. An important element that can add value to your writing and engage your readers is carefully mined data presented as visually engaging, synthesised information.
When you start to represent information visually, you infuse your writing with an additional element that may catch a skimmer’s eye and draw them further into the text. At worst, adding visual elements to your text can provide a summary of key points that someone only flipping through your report can follow to understand the story. Here are a few tips on mining data and using graphics to add value to your writing:
Finding the data
You should already have data about your work that you can start with from your routine monitoring and evaluation (if not, that’s another whole discussion!). Examples include:
- Data that illustrates an outcome
- Data that shows process/output related information
- Data that shows changes over time
If you don’t have hard numbers in your particular story, you can look at other information that highlights your point such as location data, progress, a timeline, or relationships between concepts.
Presenting the data
Most organisations have mountains of data collected, but haven’t spent enough time thinking about how best to present it to different audiences to tell different stories (leaving aside analysing and using that data for decision-making, again another whole story). Here’s a look at the different considerations made when deciding on a graphical element best suited for the information you are wanting to share:
- When you have data on two or more variables that you want to show a correlation or pattern of some type, use a graphic like a horizontal or vertical bar chart or a line chart.
- A Venn diagram is another way to show a relationship between distinct groups.
- A simple table is also a good way to show a comparison or relationship where you need the precise data points.
- When you want to show how data points are spread across a range or how often points occur, you can use a histogram or a scatter plot chart.
- A word cloud is a way to show how often certain topics or themes are used.
- Composition: When you want to show the breakdown of a data set into parts of a whole, you can use a pie chart (or the similar doughnut chart).
- Flow/process: Also called a decision tree, it shows the flow of a process and helps to guide decisions.
- Location: When you want to show where data points are physically, you can use a traditional map or a graphical overlay.
- Representation: Sometimes all you have is one data point, but you want to visually set it apart from your text. Similar to a pull quote, you can highlight a piece of data by styling the actual text and numbers.
- Time: You can use a timeline or a similar graphic to show a process, an evolution, or an unfolding of a process. You can incorporate specific data points, or be more narrative.
- Progress: Showing progress towards a goal is a great way to use a graphic. The traditional thermometer to show progress towards a funding target is an example, as are what is called a gauge chart.
Professional designers have an arsenal of tools to use to create fancy data visualisation, but for most organisations the easiest way to create charts and graphs is to create them in Excel or Powerpoint and include them your report as in the above image.
Contextualising the data
Many readers will skim through your report and look first (or only) at your graphic elements. Even if you’ve discussed them in depth in the text, graphs, charts, and photos need to be able to be understood on their own. Make sure you have a clear caption with each graphic you present so that the reader can make sense of how it relates to the overall story you want to tell at a glance.
About the Author:
Jennifer Geib is a graphic designer and writer based in Cape Town, South Africa, working with clients worldwide. For more information on her work and services, see www.jennifergeib.com.