Data Visualization 101: How to Visualize the Most Common Simple Data Points

From visualizing percentage to visualizing a list, this guide gives you some easy ways to visualize five of the most common types of data.

Which of these sounds more interesting to read?

  1. An article that is mostly text, or,
  2. An article with engaging images scattered throughout?

I’m willing to bet you picked the second option!

Although both articles are talking about the same thing, peppering it with small, interesting visuals helps break up the text, and makes the article overall easier to read and more engaging.

Images are powerful.

Visuals dominate people’s attention; in fact, images get 94% more views than text-based information.

Images that visualize data, breaking it down into a more immediately understandable format, are incredibly powerful.Click To Tweet

Not all images are created equal, however; images that visualize data, breaking it down into a more immediately understandable format, are incredibly powerful.

They can give your readers an insightful takeaway that is easy to tweet or share.

They may even use your visual on their own site and link to you as the source, growing your influence on the web.

However, if you’ve never created visuals to accompany your blog posts before, it might be confusing to get started because it’s not clear what you should visualize, or how you should break it down.

This guide will give you easy ways to visualize five of the most common types of data:

A Few Things to Consider First

If you’ve never thought about accompanying your blog posts with visualizations before, it can be a bit of a head-scratcher figuring out exactly what to visualize.

At the core of a data visualization is data; so, how can you break down the main point of your post into facts and figures that would make for good takeaways?

If your post doesn’t include any data, maybe a data visualization isn’t the best way to add visuals to your post; instead, it might be better served by a nice photograph or by pulling out a quotation.

Data Visualization 101: How to Visualize the Most Common Simple Data Points -- images-matter-undullify

But data is compelling; maybe this is a sign that you should be finding more statistics or other data to back up your arguments.

Before you begin creating visuals to accompany your posts, consider if there are some features you would like to be consistent between all the visuals on your blog, like a color scheme, use of certain fonts, etc.

Always be sure to include your logo on the visual; if someone uses it on their own website, you want their readers to be able to track down the original source, even if the webmaster doesn’t link back.

How to Visualize a Single Number

Sometimes, the most compelling piece of data at your disposal is a single number. Maybe it’s a number so big it’s hard to wrap your head around; or maybe the surprise comes from the understated smallness of the number.

Two simple ways to visualize a single number are with text or with a pictogram chart.

Text

Sometimes the best way to show something is also the simplest. A number is exact, easily understood, and can command attention all on its own.

For example, in the motion graphic The Economy of Coca-Cola, a glass is shown filling with liquid, overlaid with “1.7 billion,” the number of servings of Coca-Cola consumed daily.

visual-number-text

 

Pros: A number is powerful and precise. It can also take up a lot less room than, say, a pictogram chart (shown below).

Cons: On its own there is nothing wrong with using a number, but use too many of them and you run the risk of making your visuals too text-heavy.

Pictogram Chart

A pictogram chart visualizes data using icons that represent that data. Each icon could be worth one item, or a key might explain that each icon represents another value, such as 1,000.

In this infographic, a pictogram chart is used to great effect to show the enormous discrepancy between sharks killed by humans and humans killed by sharks (be prepared for lots of scrolling):

Data Visualization 101: How to Visualize the Most Common Simple Data Points -- Pictogram-chart-example

 

The exact number is not important here, just the discrepancy; however, at the bottom of the infographic, a red box explains that that’s over 11,000 sharks killed every hour.

Pros: Icons can simplify the meaning of complex data, and also make it more understandable across language and cultural barriers.

Cons: Using icons instead of a number is less precise, especially for very large numbers, which are hard to count. Avoid using partial icons to make the data more precise, as it can be hard to understand what a portion of an icon represents.

How to Visualize a Percentage

There are many ways to visualize percentages; as a part of a whole they can be shown in a number of different formats.

One of the most common and recognizable ways to visualize a percentage is a pie chart, of which donut charts are a variation.

Stacked bar graphs are another way to show percentages.

Pie Chart

Pie charts are some of the most recognizable, and some would say, most-overused types of visualization.

This example breaks a pie chart down progressively more and more:

visual-percentage-pie-chart

 

Pros: Pie charts are recognizable and pretty universally understood. One of the most effective ways to use them is to show one “slice” and how it relates to the whole.

Cons: The more slices you have, the harder a pie chart is to understand. They take up more space than some alternatives. They can be difficult to understand precisely without labels. Difficult to compare trends between multiple pie charts.

Donut Chart

Donut charts are the same as a pie chart, they are just missing the center.

This eases some of the cons of pie charts; for example, they can be easier to understand because removing the center makes different segments easier to compare.

There is also more room in the middle to label the chart.

These donut charts are used alongside a proportional area chart showing the perceived corruption in every country in the world.

The donut charts help explain the percentage of the world that is perceived as more vs. less corrupt.

visual-percentage-donut-chart

 

Pros: Relies less on area and more on the size of the arc, making them easier to understand at a glance. Offer space to add labels on the inside.

Cons: Still difficult to understand with lots of slices, or to understand trends between multiple donut charts.

Stacked Bar Graph

A 100% stacked bar graph shows percentages of a whole within a single bar or a set of bars.

These are particularly useful if you need to show a comparison between multiple datasets.

Unlike pie charts and donut charts, where the circular form makes it hard to compare percentages, the stacked bar graph makes this easier.

This interactive visual compares creative routines of famous writers, artists, and musicians. All the creatives had the same number of hours in a day, but this chart shows how differently they used them.

visual-percentage-stacked-bar-graph

 

Pros: Easier to compare between datasets than pie charts.

Cons: The 100% scale may not be as obvious in a bar as it is in a pie chart. Harder to compare segments the more segments there are.

How to Visualize a Proportion

Proportions can usually be visualized similarly to percentages; it’s just another way to think about the data. However, pictogram charts and proportional area charts are especially powerful for proportions.

Pictogram Chart

When using a pictogram chart for proportions, color some of the icons a different color to represent a portion of the data.

This pictogram chart compares populations of UK countries.

visual-proportion-pictogram-chart

 

Pros: Icons can simplify the meaning of complex data, and also make it more understandable across language and cultural barriers.

Cons: Using icons instead of a number is less precise, especially for very large numbers, which are hard to count. Avoid using partial icons to make the data more precise, as it can be hard to understand what a portion of an icon represents.

Proportional Area Chart

Proportional area charts are even simpler than pictogram charts.

They use the area of a shape to represent its size, and then another shape around or within it to compare it to.

The following example from 2011 shows the European debt crisis using proportional area charts. Countries are ordered by the size of their GDP and then overlaid with a red block representing the percentage of the GDP that is government debt.

In some cases, the debt completely swallows the GDP. The countries are all extremely easy to compare, being arranged this way.

visual-proportion-proportional-area-chart

 

Pros: Can compare lots of datasets easily without needing to rely on labels to get the main idea across.

Cons: It is hard to make these charts very precise and easily interpreted without labels.

How to Visualize a List

Sometimes your standout “data” is actually a list of items. Icon lists and bubble clouds are commonly used to visualize lists.

Icon List

An icon list is exactly what it sounds like: a list, with each item accompanied by an icon. While not exactly visualizing the data – it’s still very text-heavy – the icons can help break up the text.

In this humorous example, beards are ranked in terms of their trustworthiness. Every beard in the list is accompanied by a simple icon showing the type of beard.

visual-list-icon-list

 

Pros: A simple to create visualization for when your only data is a list.

Cons: Not ideal for longer lists. Not the most organized way to present a list of data that has some kind of scale.

Bubble Cloud

A bubble cloud is a visualization where every item on a list is within its own “bubble.”

They can also be plotted on a chart, in which case it is called a bubble chart. Though organized somewhat differently, bubble clouds work very similarly to proportional area charts, as their area is used for comparison purposes.

This example is pretty interesting, grouping bubbles by approximate location in the EU.

It uses color and scale to differentiate population size, and a donut chart around the border of each bubble to show the percentage of the population that smokes.

visual-list-bubble-cloud

 

Pros: Great for displaying, grouping, and comparing large sets of data.

Cons: It can be hard to get text to fit inside smaller bubbles, resulting in some legibility issues.

How to Visualize Location Data

Location data may seem simple: just slap it onto a map, right?

However, not all maps are created equal. Here are two simple ways to use a map to show data: a chloropleth map and a bubble map.

Chloropleth Map

A chloropleth map is a fancy way of saying a shaded map. States or regions are shaded to a color scale, which generally gets darker the higher the magnitude of your measurement, such as population density.

This is a fairly typical example of a chloropleth map.

visual-location-chloropleth-map

 

Pros: This type of map makes it easy to see trends across a country or region.

Cons: Larger regions are emphasized over smaller ones due to their area seeming more prominent.

Bubble Map

Bubble maps are pretty much what they sound like: a map with a bubble over each state or region, with the bubble’s size representing a particular piece of data.

This example uses bubbles to very clearly show which states have the highest rates of babies exposed to drugs in the womb.

visual-location-bubble-map

 

Pros: The use of bubbles instead of colors gets rid of the con of chloropleth maps, where larger regions are over-emphasized.

Cons: Very large bubbles can overlap other bubbles on the map, so the scale needs to be carefully determined so that things stay legible.

Wrapping Up

Carefully consider the best type of visualization for the piece of information or dataset that you want to visualize.

You should prioritize ease of understanding over the creation of something that looks cool but is difficult to interpret.

For more information about data visualization and to find inspiration, visit the following websites:

Need help with creating your data visualizations? Our unlimited graphic design service will help you create the perfect chart, diagram or graph for your compelling data.