Key concepts of data visualization

There are lots of cool tools and applications for making graphs, charts, maps and timelines. Some are easy. Some are sophisticated. But the key to making data visualizations is understanding some key concepts for communicating with your audience.

What is data visualization?

“A visualization or infographic is a graphical representation of evidence and a tool for analysis, communication, and understanding. Visualizations are the only way to extract meaning and see patterns and trends in a data set.” -Alberto Cairo, author of The Functional Art

Or in other words, the audience should be able to look at a visualization and understand the data at a glance.

Alberto Cairo’s Four Elements of Visualization

According to Cairo, a great visualization does four things:

1. Functional
-The graphics should answer key questions visually.

2. Beautiful
-If it is not interesting or attractive, readers will skip it.

3. Insightful
-It puts your data in context. It gives meaning to numbers.

4. Enlightening
-The information shapes the reader’s perception. It should be surprising, revealing and informative.

Every time you see a visualization, try to extract meaning from it. What is the take away?


Visualization is not just about graphics, but finding the right balance and connection between text and visuals.

Before you create a visualization

When you are going to create a visualization, consider three things:

1. What is the audience and publication?

2. What questions should your graphic answer? What do readers want to see and learn?

3. Can the graphic be understood without reading every value and number? Does the shape of graphic show trends and patterns?

Resources to help you pick the right graphic style:

Charts and Graph Thought-Starter

Take Aways

Visualization is about communication – balance of words and graphics

Complex and flashy is not better

Function, Beauty, Insight, Enlightening

Extract meaning at a glance

Graphics should answer readers’ questions

Know why you are using a specific graph or chart

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