Whether you are creating a dashboard or static report, regardless of the tool, these visual tips will help you improve its presentation and create a more intuitive and professionally-looking user interface.

 

Avoid Borders. Use space to separate different elements.

It is a common habit to put a box around all the visualization. These solid borders can make your design look rigid as well as cluttered (like the canvas is sliced into different pieces). While the intention, which is to separate or group elements together, should be retained, the means should be slightly tweaked. Let’s look at a simple example here:

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While the interface looks clean and organized, the black borders are too bold on white background, therefore stealing steal users’ attention from the first glance. Remember that user’s visual attention is limited, and it is your responsibility to guide their eyes to the right visual element. Because the borders are not the focus of this report, they should not be that noticeable. So instead of using ‘lines’ to separate and group elements, we can use space and subtle color contrast.

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By removing the borders and creating a consistent distance around each box, you can separate each element more efficiently. The contrast between the chart’s white background and the report’s light gray is enough to draw this distinction. Note that if the background is darker, the contrast might be too much and can again steal the attention from other visualizations – subtlety is the key. For example:

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I have also removed the borders around navigation labels on the top left corners because they don’t serve any purpose. The distance between the words is enough to tell them apart.

 

Use only a few contrasting elements but signify the contrast.

Contrast or difference between elements not only makes your dashboard look more interesting, but also plays an important role in creating a visual hierarchy for your interface. A visual hierarchy is how we organize and prioritize the information presented in an interface. So before applying any visual property, you need to think about what information is more important than others. For example, in the context of a chart, chart title is the most important, then go data label, legend, axis title, axis label and gridline. These texts should have different property that let user easily read chart title first, then focus on data label without the noise of axis label or gridlines.

The first rule is the same type of elements should have the same properties (For example: all chart titles and KPI title should have the same font size and font-weight) and there should not be too many groups with different properties. The second rule is to make the contrast prominent: exaggerate the different between groups to help users see the difference more clearly. To establish a visual hierarchy, for example, we use bigger, bolder font, brighter colors and for less important elements, we use much more subtle colors.

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Here the dashboard looks more interesting and is easier to read because I have increased the contrast by bolding the important text and using light colors for less important elements such as the unselected tabs, axis labels and gridline on the charts. On the navigation tab, I also change the selected tab to a brighter hue so that the difference is much more prominent.

 

Consistently Align Text Left

This rule is very simple but often overlooked. Intuitively we read from left to right, therefore it is easier for users to receive the information from your text elements if they are left-aligned. Another reason to consistently align text left is that we can have all text starts from the imaginary vertical line, which makes the content much more compact and organized.

An additional tip is to never align text center (except for dashboard title)

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Using colors: only use different color (hue) when it has a unique purpose

A hue is a specific shade of color that we usually assign a name to it such as green, red, blue and orange. The general rule is to avoid using more than 5 different hues on an interface and to use as few hues as possible. As a good example, each pie chart below uses the color turquoise with variations in lightness. This is monochromatic color scheme. This scheme is highly recommended for data visualization because it gives clarity without using different hues. Furthermore, it will also look good when printed in grayscale because the difference in lightness can be easily accommodated by black ink.

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While each of the three pie charts uses monochromatic scheme, the three are based on different hues. Let’s think about what these colors do for the chart – they represent different values of Store Name, Age Group and Class Name. Because we already have the chart titles and data labels, it is redundant to use a different hue for each chart. Therefore, we can use the same color scheme for all pie chart to reduce the number of different hues used in the dashboard.

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Think about the purpose of every single visual element on your canvas.

When it comes to the final review, think about the role every single element plays in communicating information. Whether it’s text, lines, border, shadow or color, it needs to help user focus on the right material or access information quicker. No element should be there for decoration. A ‘good-looking’ report or dashboard is the one that uses visual elements efficiently to deliver the business insights in the most clear and concise manner. Any element that does not help you achieve this is noise and should be removed. Happy Dahsboarding!

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