Tips & resources for designing effective visuals

By Peter Wagner
Last updated: March 01, 2022

People often ask where we learned how to make powerful visuals. The answer is a long, complicated story of trial and error, but these are the ideas and resources that helped us get here:

  1. Just practice and learn from experience. Just do it and learn what works and doesn’t work. Don’t overthink things. If you’ve worked on a visual for a long time, ask yourself the question, “Is this better than I could have done three months ago?” If the answer is “yes,“ it might be time to stop tinkering with the aesthetics, publish, and learn from how it works in the wild.
  2. Observe where people — especially your target audience — repeatedly stumble over your work and make changes, so people don’t stumble. What do they misunderstand? What questions do they ask that you think should have been obvious? What could you have done differently? You can’t succeed 100% of the time, but look for patterns. And don’t be afraid to take indirect paths to a solution. If you discover a sizable portion of your audience is not reading a key explanation in a subheadline, you could make the subheadline larger. But the better solution might be to reduce other unnecessary clutter in your work, so the subheadline isn’t so buried.
  3. Learn from good examples. Actively keep an eye out for persuasive visual data storytelling. Identify the storytelling problems the designer is trying to solve and exactly why their solution does or doesn’t work. Given the comparative budgets of organizations in the criminal justice reform space and top-tier media outlets like the New York Times, you are most likely to find inspirational examples in the Times. And note you can often learn more from visuals that are not about criminal justice than the ones produced on our issues.
  4. Read Storytelling With Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. If we were to write a book that took our internal Writing Guide and applied it to creating graphs, I’d like to think it would look a lot like Storytelling with Data. Some of the uniquely powerful things about the book include:
    • It’s entirely technology agonistic (although her website contains Excel templates for many of the examples).
    • She makes a powerful case for using what she calls “action titles” to ensure the audience understands your visual.
    • She explains the benefits of using simple colors throughout your visualization and using lighter shades of gray to make less important data and elements — even a title — less visible than your main point. This strategy has the collateral benefit of making it easier for people who aren’t gifted with color design to succeed.
    Many of the examples in the book include stunning before-and-after versions so you can see how small changes can make a big difference. It also provides the intermediate design steps that led to the final product.
  5. Check out the work of Stephen Few for imminently practical advice and examples, as well as very long discussions about why you should do things certain ways. I’m particularly fond of: Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten (Second Edition) and Now You See It: An Introduction to Visual Data Sensemaking (Second edition).
  6. Check out the work of Edward Tufte, who has rightly been called “The Leonardo da Vinci of data” and “The Galileo of graphics.” His books, especially The Visual Display of Qualitative Data, were key to developing our visual strategy. There are a couple of ways to engage his work:
    • His books
    • His online course. For slightly more than the cost of the books — or in the case of students, for less than the cost of the books purchased separately — you can get both the books and access to a 4-hour video course. (Many of our staff attended the full-day, in-person, pre-pandemic version.)
    • His carefully curated forum. is invaluable with participation from leaders in the field. Tufte and his moderators curate comments and cull posts, including his own, when they are no longer relevant. Whenever his forum comes up in internet searches, it’s often worth reading.
  7. Be smart about color. Using color effectively is extremely hard, but a website designed for mapmakers called ColorBrewer can easily be repurposed to suggest effective colors for charts. To start, simply indicate how many colors you want to use, how you want to use them, and select a hue. ColorBrewer will suggest the exact colors to use. Colors can be used to signify categories of things, deviations from the norm, or a sequence. Most useful of all, you can set it to show only color patterns that are color-blind safe, reproduce well in print, and can withstand being photocopied in black and white. If you don’t have a budget to bring in a professional designer and don’t want to stay in the safe, simple world of black and white, use ColorBrewer.
  8. Use typography to advance your cause. Being an advocate is about persuasion, and the simple fact is that if you make your content easy to read, you have an advantage over people who are making their content harder to digest. The best, most practical book for using the power of proper formatting to win arguments is the unfortunately named Typography for Lawyers by Matthew Butterick. The book explains the theory and gives practical guidance. For example, it’s nice to be told that “the optimal line spacing is between 120% and 145% of the point size,” but it’s actually useful to know how to produce that result in both Microsoft Word and Apple Pages, each of which do their math differently and require different numbers to get the same visual result. (Non-lawyers should skip the parts about how to get around restrictive court rules and your boss’ typewriter-era insistence on using underline instead of italics, but the majority of the book is applicable to everyone and everywhere (including web design). Most of the content from early versions of the book is on the website, but it’s much easier to read and use on paper.
  9. Avoid Death by Powerpoint. There are two schools of thought on Powerpoint. The Tufte school could be reduced to “Don’t,” while the more positive view could be reduced to “Just because most Powerpoint presentations are horrible doesn’t mean that yours have to be as well.” Why do Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes by the Goodman Center is in the latter category.

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