Now there’s an enticing title. But before you wander off, consider this – when you start a graphing project, how often do you pull up Excel, Google Sheets, Tableau, or whatever graph-o-matic as your first step and just start clicking around?
If you’re anything like me, that’s usually a recipe for disaster. Suddenly you’re perfecting an already-spectacular y-axis while ignoring the fact that you’ve chosen the wrong graph type and will eventually have to start over.
In a hectic schedule, it’s all too easy to miss the forest for the trees, getting sucked into formatting details and overlooking your end goals. That’s why you need to fail fast.
Doing it the old fashioned way
Those who have worked with me before know I’m never without my notebook. As goes the notebook, so goes the Andrea. Also the large cup of tea.
Everything I ever graph, design, or otherwise develop gets drawn first in that notebook. EVERYTHING. Over time I’ve developed a bit of a system that works for me – maybe there’s something in here you can incorporate into your own work.
My notebook is spiral bound, reasonably large, and filled with graph paper – the finest my local drugstore has to offer. Spiral bound means I can lay things flat and view only the work at hand. Graph paper means I can draw straight(ish) lines and have a better sense of scale.
I only ever use a cheap ballpoint pen with black ink. Yeah, it’s a little weird to insist on bottom-of-the-line products, but here we are. Fancy inks from expensive pens tend to bleed through the pages, and the wider ballpoint tip means I can only make coarse drawings of essential stuff – no details.
I know I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. I only use black ink. You could use blue ink if you’re one of those people, but make sure you’re using just one color. Why? Your graph should be understandable in one color. Color-coding is certainly helpful, but you can’t lean on it too heavily to get your message across. A bad printer, colorblind readers, or any number of issues could render your color palette uninformative. Color cannot be the only way you’re communicating information to your audience.
I always draw things small. If it’s a graph, the largest I’ll draw it is 15 squares wide, or around a quarter of the page – usually smaller. Why so tiny? As with the crummy pen, petite pictures mean I only have space for the important stuff. It forces me to decide what visual information is truly essential to getting my message across.
So you’ve got a pen and some paper (and you’re done rolling your eyes at my pickiness). Now what?
Step one: Rule One – decide on your one message and determine the minimum amount of information you need to convey it.
Next, think about the type of data you’re working with. Is it a time series? Categorical? Portions of a whole? And what is the reader supposed to do with the data? Are they comparing values? Looking at a trend over time?
With these goals and essential information in mind, start drawing. Draw as many variations on a theme as you can. If you’re planning on using a bar graph, for example, try a vertical one and a horizontal one. Consider how you’re going to order the bars. Are you doing grouped bars? Stacked? What about labeling? Are you going to show the axes, or are you taking a minimalist approach? For something as simple as a bar graph, there are a LOT of options!
By sketching your options, you can quickly decide what works and – more importantly – what doesn’t. You’re not wasting time going down formatting rabbit holes. By failing quickly on paper and deciding on a game plan, you’ll be able to open Graphing Program of Choice knowing exactly what you’re going to do, and won’t be led astray by the “good enough” default option.
Have a game plan in mind before hitting the field. Experiment on paper so you don’t burn valuable time on the computer.
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