Fonts of wisdom: How text can make or break your graph

For all the good that imagery can do, no data visualization is complete without text. Whether it’s a label or a legend, fonts make an appearance at some point. So it stands to reason that your text should be just as polished as the rest of your work – no more handing out magnifying glasses with your graph; it’s time to be loud, proud, and clearly printed.

Which fonts are best for infographics and graphs?

Psst – Are you on Pinterest? You know what to do!


Today we’re looking at the top 4 considerations when it comes to using text with your graph:


1. Use easy-to-read sans serif fonts

Generally speaking, you want a sans serif font – that’s a font without the extra caps and shoes you find on fonts like Times New Roman. (Or a little closer to home, the header for this section is a serif font; the text you’re reading now is sans serif.)

Excel’s default option is Calibri, which is a perfectly serviceable sans serif font… but it also screams HEY THIS WAS MADE USING EXCEL!

If you’d like to break out of the mold, there are hundreds of other options. Fonts like Arial or Helvetica may already be installed on your computer – fine choices, but also heavily used. I tend to prefer fonts you can download and install for free from places like FontSquirrel. My personal favorites include:

Five favorite fonts for data visualization.

* Work Sans is particularly good for tables, as the numbers are designed to line up properly if you set their format to Tabular.

Whichever font you choose, it should be readable at small sizes. Regular weight is ideal; “light” or “thin” fonts can disappear after a couple trips through the photocopier, and bold can get muddy.


2. Go bigger

I’m of the belief that if you’re going to include text, you might as well make it readable.

While you’re making your graph, consider where it’ll be used. Is it destined for the corner of a report page (small size)? Or perhaps be a full-page feature or featured in social media (large size)?

The destination dictates how big the font should be, relative to everything else on the graph. So a tiny report-bound graph needs to have relatively large font, while a Tweet-bound data visualization has a little more room to work with.

Scaling graphs based on their final destinations.

Check out the font sizes in each graph – tiny graphs on the printed page get much larger text, relatively speaking.


3. Avoid background interference

When placing your text, consider what’s in the background. Ideally, you want your text over open space, or at least a single solid color. Bridging text over two colors, a pattern, or from color to space (looking at you, pie charts) makes reading difficult.

Make sure your pie chart labels don't overlap any wedge boundaries.

Make sure your pie chart labels don’t overlap any wedge boundaries – a changing background makes text harder to read.


4. Maximize color contrast

Finally, you want to make sure there’s a big enough difference in color between your text and its background. Dark text on a light background is easiest to read, but light on dark is also acceptable.

Label position and contrast for bar graphs.

Three options for label placement, some more successful than others.


If you’re unsure about readability, try to imagine what your graph would look like after being sent through an old black-and-white copier a few times.

Is your copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy going to be readable with thin light green over a medium blue-and-red pattern? Probably not.

Also, that sounds ugly. Don’t do that.


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