Think Like a Designer

I’m a big fan of the work they’re doing over at Duarte Design. Great, practical, motivating presentation design practices. Rarely do I come away from their site un-inspired about something.

Recently, Nancy Duarte participated in an interview with Jimmy Guterman of the MIT Sloan Management Review, which resulted in the article "How to Become a Better Manager By Thinking Like a Designer" (sign up is required). The quote that summarizes the article is:

“Often managers… rely heavily on data and information to tell the story and miss the opportunity to create context and meaning…leaving lots of room for interpretation, which can spawn multiple cycles and limit advancement."

It’s the same with information presentation. A focus on design at the beginning expands the ability to deliver context and meaning. But before you discount design as a concept for well, you know, "those artsy types", keep in mind, as Nancy puts it:

"Design is... crafting communications to answer audience needs in the most effective way."

What this means is that the more you focus on design, the more you’ll "speak" to your audience - which means you’ll be more effective with your data presentation. It’s about the audience, not you.

Here are some dashboard design principles that we use (with a few enhancements from Nancy’s interview) to make sure we become better information presenters by thinking like designers:

  • Unity/Harmony - a sense that everything in the application belongs together, resulting in a "whole" that is greater than the sum of the parts. All the elements complement, augment, and enhance, as opposed to distract and detract from each other.

    Takeaway: Identify the problem you’re solving and make sure every element you place moves you closer to answering that question.

  • Proximity/Hierarchy - Things that are near each other are related. Hierarchy demonstrates relationships between items where appropriate. Proximity and Hierarchy both provide tremendous contextual cues leading to better understanding.

    Takeaway: Place related things near each other and separate unrelated things. Remember, dogs and cats don’t play well together.

  • Clear Space - White space in information display is very important and too often overlooked. Maximizing dashboard real estate means creating places for the eye to "rest" so that the non-white space is more effective.

    Takeaway: Use white space in conjunction with proximity to help your viewers follow the story the information is telling.

  • Balance - Dominant focal points either give the viewer a sense of comfort (balanced) or spur them to action (unbalanced). Nancy points out "that does not mean all things must be in balance all the time. It is often effective to jar people and thereby effect a change in behavior or thought. Be aware, though, that once something has been thrown out of balance, it is the nature of the universe to find a new state of equilibrium."

    Takeaway: Make sure the primary focal points in your information presentation tell the viewer either "it’s ok, move on" or "you need to do something."

  • Contrast - Contrast creates interest to focus attention or highlight differences. Again quoting from the article "The value of contrast lies neither in the black nor the white, but in the tension between them."

    Takeaway: Use Contrast to shift Balance so the viewer focusses and acts more quickly.

  • Proportion - More important elements deserve more real estate. It’s tempting to want to present an unbiased view of the data. However, as Amanda Cox of the NYT graphics department stated at the OEDC "Seminar on Innovative Approaches to Turn Statistics into Knowledge" "data isn’t like your kids, you don’t have to pretend to love them equally."

    Takeaway: Increase the size and emphasis of the values and decrease the size of labels and you’ll find dramatically better impact and speed of understanding.

  • Simplicity - Stay focused on the specific fact on which you’re trying to shine light. This sometimes means showing less data and a simpler display. I think Garr Reynolds sums it up best: "Don’t confuse ’simplicity’, which is hard to achieve, with ’simplistic’, which is easy and usually lacking value."

    Takeaway: Help your viewers focus on what’s really important by pointing them to the kernels and not the chaff.