5 Tips to Improve Your Financial Charts and Graphs

  • By AFP Staff
  • Published: 6/27/2024

Improve Charts and GraphsAn effective chart or graph is more than just getting the numbers right. Many small decisions go into a chart, and they add up to have a big impact on your effectiveness as a finance professional in communicating the data.

You want your charts to be equally effective whether you are present to explain it or it gets forwarded to another reader to be read independently.

Here are five tips to help you make those small but critical decisions when creating a chart.

1. Maximize the “data-ink ratio.”

Originated by Edward Tufte, the data-ink ratio is the proportion of all visible ink on a graph or chart that can be attributed to the data the presenter is trying to convey. A conceptual ratio rather than an actual calculation, the idea is that maximizing the data-ink ratio will create graphs and charts with the most pertinent information for the audience.

To maximize the data-ink ratio, examine all the non-data elements of the image, such as axes, axis labels, gridlines, labels and other text. Only use these elements if they help make the data comprehensible and informative to the audience.

Present the non-data elements in a size and style that is easy for the audience to view. For example, ensure that the color brightness and line thickness do not overshadow or compete with elements conveying the data itself.

2. Be thoughtful and consistent in choosing colors and shading.

If applied consistently, color can add meaning to graphs and charts. For example, you might want to make consistent color choices to distinguish different sales regions or revenues versus expenses.

Beyond colors, you can also use shading — the use of colors to fill in the space between data lines in a graph — to emphasize the difference between values, or to suggest that there is a range of possible values between the maximum and minimum values indicated by the lines.

Shading is especially useful for FP&A professionals who often need to show the range of possible future expected cash flows from a project with considerable uncertainty.

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3. Ensure auxiliary visual choices are in service of the data.

Visual choices, such as gridlines, axes and legends, are often useful to the audience but should never overshadow the presentation of the data itself. Make sure you present these visual choices (e.g., through font size, text effects, color intensity) in a manner that’s in service of the data.

In some instances, the additional visual features may not even be necessary for the graph to make its intended point. For example, a graph may not need a legend if the same information is conveyed to the audience on the chart.

4. Add data labels to emphasize the graph’s message.

Data labels can be useful for highlighting specific data points and emphasizing the graph’s primary message. For example, showing the value for each monthly data point in a dataset spanning 20+ years would render the graph unreadable. Instead, adding values to a few key dates — such as the initial data reading, the trend’s high and low points, and a couple of the most recent trending data points — emphasizes the graph’s message.

Data labels can also be used to identify the metrics being graphed. For example, when a legend takes up too much space on the graph or is too distant from the graph elements to be useful, it can be replaced with data labels to point to specific areas of the graph.

5. Use words to enhance the graph’s meaning.

Remember to include important details or assumptions that are driving the analysis. The audience may be unaware of the details they need to understand the graph fully. For example, in a graph demonstrating a company’s market capitalization since the hiring of a CEO, a callout (line leading to a textbox) noting when the CEO was appointed helps convey the key message.

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