Money once used to hire a design firm or an in-house creative team simply isn’t available. However, the need for informational graphics has not diminished. If anything, being able to convey data visually continues to become increasingly important, particularly for researchers.

Without supporting graphics, data can be boring at best and, at worst, confusing or even misleading. You need quality graphics to communicate effectively. 

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the graphic capabilities of Microsoft products and there are plenty of other low-cost software solutions available. There’s no need to be an Adobe Illustrator expert or to have an art degree to create some basic graphics to accompany your presentation or article. The techniques described below will help you to improve what you may already know how to do. The greatest difficulties often lie in grasping a few fundamentals about how graphics work and how to best create and save them for distribution and use by others.

Color

Color plays an important part in conveying what your data means and thus affects how your audience will respond to it. Most people have seen the default color scheme of an Excel chart hundreds, if not thousands of times. It’s easy to mentally dismiss something that you’ve seen so often.

Does this mean you should choose hot pinks for your bar chart so they won’t be missed? Most times, no. You can, however, choose colors that reflect the content of your chart or graph. Is it a serious topic? Try darker colors like navy blues and blacks. Is it about recycling or an environmental topic? Try natural greens and browns. Does the graph show information about your company or product? Use the product’s or company’s associated colors and your audience will know something about the data before they read the details. The more information your audience can glean without reading a thing, the better.

If you choose different shades of the same color – light green to dark green, for example – you can imply that they represent the same kind of data. Use such pairings for proportion or density with the darker color implying higher numerical values. 

Using different shades of the same color can also serve as a visual cue that different graphics are part of a set. Before even seeing the details, your audience can instantly grasp that all your green charts represent financial data, for example, while all your blue charts represent product development data, etc.

Just as color implies intention, so does choosing no color at all. If a graph is just a supplement to the text rather than the focus, a linear black graphic works just fine.

Finally, it’s great to be colorful if you have one main chart, but there’s also the danger of making information appear disjointed or overwhelming if you use every bright color in your palette for several graphics that appear on a page together. When you have a lot of data to present, too many multi-colored charts and graphs will be a distraction. In this case, less is usually more.

Layout

It is often tempting to create an overabundance of visuals and to use them all. But your audience will discover more from one or two large graphics than from a dozen smaller ones as long as they are well-labeled, easy to read, and relevant. When too many graphics are present, an audience has to decipher which are most relevant and how they differ from one another. Most viewers simply won’t make the effort.

A general rule of thumb for print should be two or, at most, three graphics per letter-size page. For PowerPoint, push yourself to keep it to one graphic per slide. If it’s crucial to include more graphics, it’s much better to simply add more slides – hey, they’re free! – and then move faster through them during your presentation. A glut of tiny charts, especially if accompanied by an excess of bullet points, will almost certainly intimidate or bore your audience. The less there is on a slide to read, the more listening to what you’re saying will be done. Put something interesting on the slide and keep your bullet points on your index cards; the graphics remaining will instantly look better.

Another aspect of layout is alignment. Your graphs will look much cleaner if they’re properly aligned. A centered title will look much better if the left and right edges of the graph are straight and clearly-defined. If you have several graphs along one side of different pages, the title will probably look best aligned to that side. Are most of your graphs on the left side of the page? Use left-aligned titles.

You can also align elements within your graphics to each other to prevent them from “floating.” For example, tables typically look best with the first row titles centered, the left column titles left- or right-aligned, and the contents centered within the cells.

Fonts

Like colors, fonts convey information about the subject of your graph. It should go without saying that choosing Comic Sans for a serious topic is a bad choice. Again, the default options for fonts in the Microsoft Office products are fine and legible, but Times New Roman, Calibri, and Arial are now so familiar, they’ve also become easy to overlook.

There are two types of fonts – serif and sans serif. Serif fonts have “feet” and are thought to be more legible in print. (You are reading this in a serif font.) In contrast, sans serif fonts do not have feet and tend to be used more for titling, table content, and (perhaps most importantly) on screens for computers, tablets, televisions, and for presentations.

Typically, for titling graphs and charts, sans serif fonts are more legible. If you have a lot of text to fit into a title, consider using a condensed version of a sans serif font like Helvetica, Trade Gothic, or Myriad. Your title will fit into a smaller space while still being legible. 

There is one good rule for fonts that will make your graphics and documents look much better and that is to avoid using more than three fonts per page or graphic. Again, less is more.

Printing

Resolution is a key factor for images comprised of pixels (called raster images). Computer screens only display graphics at 72–96 DPI (dots per inch). If a photo or graphic looks good on your screen, it will likely look good on any other screen. If a website or presentation is the final destination, that’s all you need to consider.

However, printing that same image will not produce a good result. Printed images need at least 300 DPI to look good on paper. Ink needs a different density on paper than pixels on the screen to look good; many professional printers will not even print something that is comprised of low-resolution images. Resolution can never be added back into an image – once an image is resized from an initial high-resolution photo, no amount of resizing or work in Photoshop will make it work in print. Resizing a small image will just make each individual pixel larger and give your image a pixilated, low-quality look. A screen will only show 72–96 DPI at one time which is why images at the correct resolution for print will always look incredibly large when scaled at 100 percent on your computer. 

Because graphs and charts typically contain text and shape-based forms, there are a number of problems that can arise when they are to be printed. Even when graphs containing text are saved at high resolution, that text can become illegible when the graph is resized. The lines and bars can also lose their crisp edges, damaging both clarity and professional appearance.

The solution? Text and line graphics will print better when they are created and saved as vector graphics. Instead of pixels (like raster graphics), vector graphics use points, lines, curves, and shapes that are mathematically-calculated and redrawn by the computer when the graph is resized. All the edges, shapes, and text, therefore, remain crisp whether that graphic is resized to four inches or four feet! Vector images are also editable – fonts can be changed, labels moved, and shapes re-colored.

If you are creating something for internal printing and distribution, Microsoft products do not cause a problem. You can select charts and graphs directly in Excel and paste them into your Word document. The charts and graphs you create in Excel are vectors; the problem is saving them as vectors in a format that a professional publication can use. Currently, most publications use Adobe InDesign.

Vector file extensions can be AI (Adobe Illustrator), EPS, PDF, and SVG. Unfortunately, if you don’t have the Adobe Suite, saving a chart or graph as a vector graphic isn’t usually possible. Recreating a chart in Illustrator without the data involves a lot of typing and could lead to mistakes, but a chart isn’t effective if the audience cannot read the labels. Even with the right data, the automatic charting feature in Illustrator isn’t that robust. It’s best to use Illustrator to make existing vector images look better.

You can solve the vector issue with professional publications – including Alert! – in one of several ways. You can send your charts and graphic in Excel, along with the data, and the designer can create a PDF from that file since he or she will have the needed Adobe products.

Another option is to use a program that creates images from data that can be saved as vector PDFs. In his book Visualize This, Nathan Yau describes his process using a software program called R to create vector PDFs from data and Adobe Illustrator to enhance them once saved. Yau’s book makes a terrific reference as does the Edward Tufte series of books on information design.

Most important, however, when it comes to creating informational graphics, you should learn to trust yourself. People know when something looks off but decide since they aren’t “creative types,” they don’t know how to fix it. Instead of giving up, move things around, try different options, get out of your chair and look at it from a different angle, or talk about it with a co-worker. Just because you aren’t a designer doesn’t mean you can’t create a well-balanced visual.