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    Muted Grid Lines: Small Details, Big Difference

    Updated on: Nov 13th, 2014
    Data Visualization
    ,
    Handout using small multiples charts to show data that is color-coded and sorted into columns.

    A few posts ago, I showed you this collage of area charts, which could be printed on 8.5 x 11 inch paper and used as a discussion starter at a meeting:
    Collage of area charts where the grid lines are muted.
    This is made-up data, but I share handouts like these at meetings all the time. The typical reaction: “It’s just so simple!”

    What’s the key to this handout’s simplicity?

    Secret #1 is that I intentionally made nine separate charts, one chart per series of data (rather than three line charts with three series of data each, like one line chart for indicator #1’s data for Virginia and Texas and California together).

    Secret #2 is that I intentionally removed the grid lines. Lots of little charts –> need uncluttered design so that readers’ brains don’t feel cluttered.

    Bad Version #1

    Here’s what that same handout would’ve looked like with horizontal grid lines:
    Collage of area charts with horizontal lines on each chart.
    Score on the “grid lines, if present, are muted” item in our Data Visualization Checklist: 0 of 2 points.

    Really Bad Version #2

    And that same handout again with vertical grid lines…

    It’s like peering at your data through a tennis racket.
    Collage of area charts where each chart features horizontal and vertical lines, it's like looking through a tennis racket.
    Score on the Data Visualization Checklist: 0 of 2 points.

    Really Really Bad Version #3

    But boy oh boy does it get better.

    Here’s the same handout again, but this time the data’s displayed in line charts instead of area charts.

    How are stakeholders supposed to make decisions based on data if they can’t even see it?
    Collage of area charts that uses line charts in each chart which is hard to read/interpret.
    Score on the Data Visualization Checklist: 0 of 2 points.

    Original Version, Plus An Alternative

    Phew, what a relief. Here’s that original version again.

    Can you see why I removed the grid lines altogether?
    Collage of area charts where the grid lines are muted.
    Score on the Data Visualization Checklist: 2 of 2 points.

    And if your boss/colleague/client isn’t used to grid line-free charts, try something like this.

    In this version, I muted the grid lines. Muting means I altered the color—the grid lines are light gray instead of black.
    Collage of area charts where the grid lines are muted/light gray in color.
    Score on the Data Visualization Checklist: 1 of 2 points.

    Small tweaks to formatting, major gains in giving your readers distraction-free data.

     

    More about Ann K. Emery
    Ann K. Emery is a sought-after speaker who is determined to get your data out of spreadsheets and into stakeholders’ hands. Each year, she leads more than 100 workshops, webinars, and keynotes for thousands of people around the globe. Her design consultancy also overhauls graphs, publications, and slideshows with the goal of making technical information easier to understand for non-technical audiences.

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