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This post was contributed by Picture as Portal® cofounder, Tami Tolpa. Tami has a Master of Fine Arts degree in Medical Illustration from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

In this, the second of my three blog posts about data viz, we walk through a slide that I created for the EarlyEdU Alliance. Founded by Dr. Gail Joseph of the University of Washington, the mission of EarlyEdU is to improve access to affordable, relevant bachelor’s degrees for the early childhood workforce.

The slide was created for an online course titled “Infant Mental Health.” The audience is early childhood education teachers. Below you can see the original slide and the “makeover” slide I created using several of the principles we teach in S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. I’ll show you how these principles make it much easier for a viewer to quickly grasp and relate to the data in the slide.



As you can see, the BEFORE is a standard text slide with bullets. For initial triage, I cut a lot of the text. Dr. John Medina from the University of Washington says in his book Brain Rules “We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.”  Knowing that visuals help viewers learn and retain information, I transformed the bullet points into images. In this process, I made use of color, value, shape, while always being mindful of the topic’s sensitive nature. 

The process involved the following conceptual steps: 

1. I humanized the data

Humanizing is a key principle we teach in S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. It’s the process of making data come alive by showing its relationship to people. So my first step was to visually represent the 14 children mentioned in the slide with realistic silhouettes. These suggest a group of children with diverse ages, genders, shapes, and sizes. Humanizing appeals to the emotions of the viewer and generates empathy—relevant to this audience of adults in close contact with children.

2. I used color and value to emphasize the most important data.

The most important data here is that 1 out of every 14 children (7%) has a parent in prison. Value is a term that means lightness or darkness. To make use of color and value, I made one of the 14 silhouettes dark purple. The 7% is emphasized by placing it in a dark purple circle, visually aligning it with the dark purple silhouette. The other 13 silhouettes are light blue. In this way, the most important information—1 in 14 (7%)—is differentiated by both color (purple versus blue) and value (dark versus light).

3. I further emphasized the most important data through shape.

The silhouette representing the 1 child in 14 has the most irregular outline. She’s the only one with her arms out. In S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science, you’ll learn how to use shapeto emphasize particular components of your pictures.

Best practices for accessibility tell us that we should not use color as the only indicator of something. “Always use color plus another visual indicator…to communicate important information.” I used color, value, and shape to differentiate the 1 child in 14.

This is a simple slide. But informed choices about visual communication strategies give it impact and make it easy to understand. For more instruction on humanizing your work and using best practices for color, value and shape, check out our course S.P.A.R.K. | 5 strategies for the visual communication of science. And stay tuned for the next (and final) post in our data visualization series.


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