Choosing visualisations

This module should take 15 minutes to complete.

The message

After your initial data investigations and analysis, work out what messages you want to communicate.

Do not try to show everything on one chart.

Once you have your message, pick the best type of visualisation for that message.

Avoid what might be called ‘fancy’, ‘whizzy’ or ‘snazzy’ charts.

In general, simple data visualisations with a clear message are the best.

Remember: focus on the message.

Example: finding the message

Read over example 2 on our Data visualisation: examples page (link opens in new tab). This example describes lots of things we will cover in this e-learning but one of the main things it covers is how to focus on the message of a chart.

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When thinking about your message, there are four standard options.

1. Tables

Tables help users look up and compare values.


Figure 1 – People employed at each Civil Service grade, UK, 2018 (fictional data)
Percentage of total headcount
Administrative Assistant
Administrative Officer
Executive Officer
Higher Executive Officer
Senior Executive Officer
Grade 7
Grade 6
Senior Civil Service

2. Bar charts

Bar charts help users compare the size of different categories.


Figure 2 – Favourite animals of 6 year olds, UK, 2022 (fictional data)

Larger version of figure 2.

This bar chart shows fictional data of favourite animals of 6 year olds. The bar chart allows for easy comparison of the small differences between the categories.

3. Line charts

Line charts show data over time.


Figure 3 – Annual unemployment rate, all people aged 16 and over, UK, 1971 to 2021, seasonally adjusted

Larger version of figure 3.

This line chart shows the fluctuations of the rate between a high of just under 12% in the early 1980s and a low of just under 4% in 2019. The line chart allows us to see the highs and lows of the unemployment rate over time.

Source: Labour Force Survey from the Office for National Statistics

4. Pie charts

Pie charts show how parts make up a whole.


Figure 4 – Responses to the “What is your religion?” question on the 2011 Census of England and Wales

Larger version of figure 4.

The pie chart shows the following data: 59.3% of responses to the “What is your religion?” question on the 2011 were classed as Christian, 25.1% as No religion, 8.4% as Other and 7.2% as Not stated. The pie chart allows us to visualise the proportion of the total each response makes up.

Source: Religion in England and Wales 2011

More complex charts

Sometimes you might want something more complex. This visual vocabulary tool (link opens in new tab) may help you – but remember: the simplest way is usually the best way.

If you have never seen a puzzle grid before, they are grids with 16 words or phrases in them. You have to find the connections to make four groups of four items.

For example you might select cow, chicken, sheep and horse as a group of farmyard animals.

Can you use the information in this module to make the connections that will solve our online puzzle grid about charts (link opens in new tab)?

If you need it you can use the plain text version of the puzzle grid (ODT, 8KB) instead.

If you are working in Microsoft, once you have decided the best chart for your data you can follow these instructions to see how to add in a basic chart. The next modules will show you what you need to do to make these basic charts accessible.

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Try these questions to test your knowledge from this module


Download a plain text version of module 2 quiz(ODT, 8KB)

End of module 2

Next, module 3: Accessibility and colour

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