9 Ways to Make Your Graphs Stunningly Simple and Insightful

Raise your hand if you‘ve ever sat through a presentation with slide after slide of cluttered, confusing graphs. 🙋‍♀️ We‘ve all been there. And if we‘re being honest, we‘ve probably been the culprit at some point too.

Let‘s face it – most of us never learned how to design compelling graphs that make our insights pop. We just plug numbers into the default Excel chart and call it a day.

But in a world where we‘re drowning in data, being able to visualize it in a way that‘s both beautiful and meaningful is a superpower. Research has shown that well-designed visuals are:

  • Processed 60,000 times faster by the brain than text
  • 17% more persuasive and impactful on the audience
  • 31% more effective at getting consensus in group decisions

On the flip side, a bad graph can undermine your credibility, muddle your message, and put your audience to sleep. Not exactly the outcome we‘re going for!

The good news is, anyone can learn to transform their graphs from meh to magnificient with a few key design principles. As an analyst and data viz geek, I‘ve spent years honing my graph design chops and now I‘m spilling all my secrets.

In this post, I‘ll walk you through 9 tips to simplify and sexify your graphs so you can let your insights shine. We‘ll cover:

  1. Decluttering your graph
  2. Highlighting key insights
  3. Iterating to improve

Whether you‘re a data viz novice or a seasoned pro, these techniques will help you create graphs that are both gorgeous and effective. Get ready to wow your audience and become the data rockstar of your team!

1. Declutter Your Graph for Instant Clarity {#declutter}

The foundation of any beautiful graph is simplicity. Far too often, our charts are weighed down with distracting clutter that obscures the message. Background colors, gridlines, redundant labels, outlining boxes – you name it, I‘ve seen it.

But here‘s the thing – the human brain is wired to process visual information quickly and make snap judgments. Studies show we form first impressions in as little as 1/10 of a second. So if your graph is a jumbled mess, you‘ve already lost your audience before they even figure out what they‘re looking at.

Decluttering is about stripping away anything that doesn‘t directly contribute to understanding the data. It‘s the Marie Kondo method for graphs – if an element doesn‘t spark insight, it doesn‘t belong!

Let‘s look at some of the most common clutter culprits and how to tidy them up:

Ditch the background

One of the easiest ways to simplify your graph is to remove the background color or image. Backgrounds add visual noise and can make it harder to decipher the actual data.

Instead, match the chart background to the slide background for a clean, seamless look. Check out the difference it makes in this example:

Chart with and without background

Banish unnecessary borders and lines

Borders around the edge of the chart, individual data points, or legends are another form of chart junk that can go. The same goes for axis lines and major gridlines.

If you‘re tempted to add a border for emphasis, try using whitespace instead. Let your data be the star of the show, not the boxes and lines around it!

Here‘s an example of how much cleaner a chart looks without extraneous borders:

Chart with and without borders

Consolidate duplicate labels

If your axis labels and legend labels are redundant, pick one and ditch the rest. This often happens with "Series 1", "Series 2" labels or when the legend repeats the axis categories.

Ask yourself – is the legend or axis label necessary to interpret that data? Could you label the data directly instead? When in doubt, choose the simpler option.

In this example, labeling the lines directly and removing the legend makes the graph easier to quickly comprehend:

Line chart with direct labels

Cut the ink, boost the meaning

This is a good gut check for any graph – is the meaning immediately apparent or does the audience have to work for it? Cluttered graphs make our brains work harder than they should to extract insights.

Data viz expert Edward Tufte pioneered the concept of data-ink ratio, or the proportion of a graph‘s ink devoted to meaningful information vs. decoration. He recommends always maximizing data-ink and erasing anything that doesn‘t enhance the meaning.

So next time you‘re crafting a graph, design through subtraction. Keep removing elements until you can‘t eliminate anything else without sacrificing clarity.

Need some decluttering inspiration? Check out this gallery of minimalist graphs to see how beautiful simplicity can be:

2. Highlight Key Insights to Make Your Message Pop {#highlight}

Now that we‘ve got a simple, streamlined foundation for your graph, let‘s talk about making your insights obvious and compelling.

The whole point of visualizing data is to communicate a message – whether that‘s highlighting an important trend, showcasing an outlier, or comparing categories. Yet far too often I see graphs that are a sea of sameness, where the key story is buried.

The most compelling graphs make it dead simple for the audience to get the point. They use visual cues like color, size, and text to grab attention and direct the eye to the most crucial insights.

Some of my favorite techniques for emphasizing key data:

Embrace bold colors

Color is one of the most powerful levers for drawing focus to specific data points. When everything on your graph is the same neutral color, nothing stands out.

Instead, make your most important data series or category a bright, bold, contrasting color. Then mute everything else in greys, blues, or subtle tones. This color coding helps the brain process what to pay attention to.

For example, let‘s say you want to show how your website traffic has grown compared to key competitors. Use a bright color for your brand and grey for the rest, like this:

Website traffic comparison chart

Feel free to get creative with colors, but keep in mind contrast and accessibility for colorblind viewers. Tools like ColorBrewer are great for finding palettes that work well together and for different audiences.

Vary size and shape

In addition to color, you can play with different sizes or shapes to make key data stand out. On a line graph, try using a larger dot or star symbol to mark record high points. For bar charts, make the most important bar thicker or add a spotlight effect to draw the eye.

Here‘s an example of varying marker size on a scatterplot to highlight outliers:

Scatterplot with varied marker sizes

Or for bar charts, you could use something like a star icon to mark the biggest category:

Bar chart with star icon

Remember that consistency is key, so limit yourself to 2-3 sizes or shapes and use them intentionally to convey meaning.

Annotate with context

Don‘t assume your graph speaks for itself – spell out key insights using text annotations. Think of annotations like a legend decoder that helps guide your audience to the "aha" moments.

This could be as simple as a text box calling out key data points, like "Sales up 25% since last year." Or for more complex graphs, you might add extended annotations to explain what the data means and why it matters.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from the New York Times:

NYT graph with insights annotation

Notice how the annotations provide just enough context to understand the key story and why you should care, without overwhelming the actual data.

Animate to engage

Animation is a powerful tool for adding sizzle to your graphs and guiding your audience through complex insights. But a word of caution – animation should enhance the message, not distract from it.

One effective way to use animation is by staging the data reveals in digestible chunks. Start with a basic version of the graph, then layer on data points, annotations, or effects as you talk through them.

For example, this animated bar chart reveals each competitor‘s performance in sequence, making it easy to process how they stack up:

Animated bar chart race

Or you can use animated builds to orient the audience, like this map that starts zoomed out and then transitions to different regions:

Animated map data zooms

The key is timing the animations to match your narrative flow so they feel intentional and not gimmicky.

If you want to dig deeper into animating your graphs, check out this great round-up of data visualization GIFs for inspiration.

3. Iterate and Experiment to Find the Best Fit {#iterate}

Here‘s the hard truth – most of us never get our graphs right on the first try. Crafting the perfect visualization that nails your message and makes your data sing takes time, iteration, and a dash of trial and error.

The key is to embrace experimentation in your graphing process. Start with a rough version and iterate from there, using feedback from others to refine and clarify your design. Don‘t be afraid to try out different chart types, layouts, and embellishments to see what feels right for the data.

Some of my favorite ways to iterate graph designs:

Rapid sketching

Before diving into Excel or Powerpoint, sketch out a few different ideas for visualizing the data by hand. Keep the sketches rough and focus on the general layout and data encoding, not the details.

Sketching forces you to think critically about the core story you want to tell and how to structure the data. You can also quickly generate a bunch of possibilities without getting attached to any one design.

For example, here are some initial concept sketches I did for a project on visualizing workshop feedback data:

Data viz sketches

You can see how exploring different structures and chart types helped clarify what we wanted to emphasize in the final design.

Minimum Viable Visualization (MVV)

Start your designs with an ultra-minimal, bare bones graph – just the data and axis labels. Then gradually layer on context, color, annotations, and visual styling, checking at each stage that you‘re staying true to the key story. I call this the minimum viable visualization (MVV) approach.

By starting simple and building up gradually, you can catch when a design starts to go off the rails and easily backtrack. It also ensures that any non-data ink you add is absolutely essential.

For example, let‘s look at how the MVV process played out for a recent graph I designed showing marketing campaign results:

MVV example

Notice how the early stages are barely styled at all, just focusing on the core data and message. Each layer of fidelity and polish is added intentionally to sharpen the insight and narrative.

Feedback, feedback, feedback

One of the best ways to pressure test your graph designs is by getting feedback early and often. Don‘t wait until you have a pixel-perfect masterpiece to start sharing your work.

Instead, build feedback loops into each phase of iteration. Show rough sketches or MVVs to colleagues and stakeholders to gut check that they‘re getting the right message. Iterate the design and get more rounds of input to see if the story lands.

And don‘t just ask "what do you think?" or "do you like it?" Probe for specific points of confusion, questions the graph raised for them, and ideas they have for making it clearer. Some good feedback prompts:

  • What‘s your main takeaway from this graph?
  • Anything that‘s confusing or unclear?
  • Where did your eyes go first?
  • How would you summarize the key point?
  • What, if anything, would you change to make it more impactful?

Actively integrating feedback will keep you from getting too attached to any one approach and make your end product 10x better.

Bring It All Together

Phew, that was a whirlwind tour of how to simplify and sexify your graphs! Let‘s recap the key takeaways:

  1. Declutter the non-data elements to focus attention on what matters
  2. Highlight key insights using color, size, animation and annotations
  3. Iterate with sketches, MVVs, and feedback to find the best fit

If you only remember one thing, let it be this – every design choice should have a clear purpose that enhances the meaning of the data, not obscures it. When in doubt, always optimize for instant insight and compelling delivery.

I know these tips might feel daunting at first, but take it from a data viz nerd who‘s made every mistake in the book – with practice and intention, you can become a graph design superstar!

Start by applying one or two techniques to your existing graphs and build from there. Bookmark this roundup of 25 examples of beautiful data visualizations for inspiration and reference. And don‘t forget to harness the power of feedback to continuously sharpen your skills.

If you implement these strategies, I guarantee you‘ll start getting better engagement and understanding from your audiences. Get ready for the "oohs", "aahs" and insightful questions to start rolling in!

For the love of clear, gorgeous data – go forth and make your graphs great!

Hungry for more data viz tips, tricks and examples? Check out these handy resources: