Help me make my graphs pretty
June 15, 2012 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Tips for making attractive charts/graphs? (In Excel/Illustrator, but I'm not bound to those).

I've developed an interest in data visualization and want to take my charts and graphs to the next level (in a snazzy data visualization/infographic kind of way, not a "clean up for publication in peer-reviewed journal" kind of way). For the most part, my graphs are all pretty standard - line/area graphs plotted against time, histograms, etc. and I want to know what I should do presentation-wise to clean them up and make them more professional looking, but I'm also interested in learning about other ways to represent data. I've seen some neat charts on, for instance.

I'm looking for general advice/rules of thumb, specific tips, and any good examples to reference. I know there have been a couple of questions about data visualization recently, but this is really focused on polishing the graphs I already have rather than the data analysis component. Basically, I want my graphs to look like they were prepared by a graphic designer, not just thrown into the Excel Chart wizard.

Tools/background: I have Excel 2010 and Adobe Illustrator. I've used R before but not heavily. I'm comfortable in Illustrator but am not, by any means, a graphic designer. I'm also interested in coding more interactive visualizations, but I'll leave that for another question.

P.S. - Is it easier to use Illustrator's graph tool or to make graphs in Excel and import the lines into Illustrator? It seems like the latter...

posted by hot soup to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Not that I could ever pull something like this off, but Mathematica can actually do some really cool stuff.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 2:49 PM on June 15, 2012

Best answer: I think the work of Edward Tufte is exactly what you're looking for. For advice on data visualization, he's the best there is. He has written several books and does seminars in various cities. I attended one in March and found it both enjoyable and useful.

Interesting side note: After attending Tufte's seminar, I found that the Chicago Manual of Style gives the very basics of data visualization, and then refers the reader to one of Tufte's books for further information.
posted by hypotheticole at 2:49 PM on June 15, 2012

Best answer: The blog at Excel Charts is has lots of things and often gets into the steps to create them.
posted by soelo at 2:50 PM on June 15, 2012

Best answer: My advice is to get this book which is meant for conceptual / architectural designers, and study the principles therein.

You can see that there's a pretty eye-popping graph on the cover, right? The whole book is full of concrete, easy-to-understand applications of the principles of design.

And then I would hang out in Illustrator and try to achieve some downright useful result with the aesthetics of a Chad Hagen piece or some of the generative art out there.

But you can't go wrong by going back and studying the principles of design. That's what graphic designers smoke all day long.
posted by circular at 3:01 PM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Defining a color scheme will make a huge difference. Kuler is a great tool for this, and they have an Illustrator plugin.

Don't use black borders or lines (don't use the default colors at all). Depending on your chosen palette, a dark grey (warm or cold) can look much better. For bar/pie graphs, you can use a darker tone for borders or shadows. You can also use ligher tones for labels or borders. Illustrator's Color Guide tool is great for this.

Typography is another important point. If you use the same old Arial, your graphs will look boring. So you need a typeface is a very basic but helpful resource for non-designers. Also, Laura Kalbag has a great presentation with a general overview of typography (ignore the first 10 slides, as they are more relevant to web designers).

If you want to learn more about typography, The Elements of Typographic Style and Thinking with Type are great references.

Finally, Before&After has a lot of resources for non-designers. They have a book on Graphics for Business. Check out their free PDFs too.
posted by clearlydemon at 3:29 PM on June 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

Forgot to post this Illustrator tutorial which uses Kuler and the Color Guide tool to recolor artwork.
posted by clearlydemon at 3:32 PM on June 15, 2012

One thing I like to do is to use Matlab or another plotting program to generate graphs, then bring them in to Illustrator as encapsulated postscript (EPS) files. This lets you edit all the text and linetypes. So you can do your plotting in something that does it well (lets you do log-log or semilog plots, error bars, etc.) then bring it into Illustrator and change fonts, linewidths, colors, etc.
posted by pombe at 3:58 PM on June 15, 2012

Response by poster: Really, all best answers! Awesome resources; please keep them coming if you have more.
I guess I was kind of overlooking the fact that my question was really about graphic design fundamentals. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.
posted by hot soup at 5:03 PM on June 15, 2012

One more suggestion, maybe you've considered it, maybe not: Look at using actual 3D modeling/rendering software for some of your graphs.

Even a simple 3D package should let you import graphics in vector format from Illustrator. This means that you can extrude them to give them depth, thicken them, round them off, make them out of various materials like glass, plastic, and more.

Then you have lighting (such as diffuse's a great example) and camera angles you can play with.

It's easy to get carried away, but with design principles in practice, 3D is a great toolset to have.

I keep around some simple / free packages: Blender 3D, Art of Illusion, POVRay. And I have a few commercial packages, such as Cheetah 3D, Carrara, and Vue. Worth a look.
posted by circular at 9:03 PM on June 15, 2012

The Flowing Data book has some examples for using R and importing the graph into Illustrator for cleaning up. That seems like a workflow that might suit you. Illustrators graphing functionality kinda sucks. Would not recommend.
posted by dame at 3:59 PM on June 16, 2012

Making graphs in Illustrator is a big part of my full-time job and has been for ten years. In that time, the only changes Adobe have made to Illustrator's graphing functionality is to introduce a bug, and then fix it. It's maddening.

But I can't stand Excel! Importing the lines means when the data change (as they always do in my work) I have to basically start over. Even R doesn't fix this problem. So I stay in Illustrator.

And every month or so I write Adobe a feature request.

Anyway, seconding the recommendation of Edward Tufte's books. They're amazing, really eye-opening stuff. His exhortation to put less ink on the page got me to change what I do: white gridlines, minimal legends, and no tick marks. And my stuff is way more usable as a result of that one piece of advice. Check those books out.
posted by kostia at 1:20 AM on June 17, 2012

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