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Visualization Tip: Maximize Data or Drop the Graphic


Technical professionals provide essential data and information. One tip to do this is to maximize the data-to-ink ratio. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
Technical professionals provide essential data and information. One tip to do this is to maximize the data-to-ink ratio.

The data-to-ink ratio is a helpful way to create powerful graphics. Simultaneously, your graphics also become more accessible. And if you are bothered by the look of the graphic once you have minimized the decorative ink, then you probably do not need the graphic. This visualization tip concerns being a more effective communicator by focusing on the essential information.


Underlying Foundations

Three tenants are in play:


1. Technical professionals provide information.

Most of our graphics should be information graphics, not decorative graphics.


2. Decision makers want the essential information.

In business, we tend to share too much data to the point of creating noise.


3. Fewer visuals are usually better.

Maximizing useful information and reducing noise make our visuals more relevant. It also makes our work more accessible for people with visual and hearing impairments.


The Data-to-Ink Ratio Is Not A New Concept

Edward Tufte popularized the data-to-ink ratio. The concept involves assessing the efficiency of a chart by comparing the amount of ink (or pixels in digital formats) used to represent the actual data to the total ink used in the entire graphic.


We like common and powerful tools like Excel to produce graphs and basic visuals. However, Excel does not have a built-in feature designed to evaluate the data-to-ink ratio. You can manually evaluate the data-to-ink ratio by following these general steps:


1. Identify Data-Ink

Review the visual and identify the elements that directly represent data. These might include data points, lines, bars, and labels.


2. Identify Non-Data Ink

Identify elements that do not convey information and can be considered non-data ink. This might include gridlines, unnecessary labels, decorations, or extraneous elements.


3. Calculate Ratio

Compare the amount of ink used for data representation to the total ink used in the entire visual. The ratio can be calculated as follows: Data-to-Ink Ratio = Data Ink / Total Ink.


An Example

A colleague recently shared a link to an example of maximizing the data-to-ink ratio. The source is Delivering Data Analytics.

Before (top) and after (bottom) improving the data-to-ink ratio. You don't need the graphic if you think the information cannot stand on its own.
Before (top) and after (bottom) improving the data-to-ink ratio. You don't need the graphic if you think the information cannot stand on its own. (source: DDA)

In this example, the data-to-ink ratio is maximized by removing these elements:

  • Background

  • Chart border

  • Shadows

  • Special Effects

  • Bar borers

  • Redundant legend

  • Redundant labels

  • X-axis

  • Bold

  • All lines

Plus, reducing colors and directly labeling the bars.


Caveats

The data-to-ink ratio has its proponents and its critics. Remember that the effectiveness of visualization goes beyond just the data-to-ink ratio. Clarity, interpretability, and relevance to senior management are always important. However, in most cases, less is usually more.


Communicating with FINESSE

Manually assessing and optimizing graphs for clarity and efficiency is important for data visualization and effective communication. Maximizing the data-to-ink ratio is part of Illustrate, the I in the FINESSE cause-and-effect diagram for effective communication. Technical advisors should focus on providing essential information, not decoration or amusement.


 

Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.

 

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