There is a hotly contested topic amongst data designers that should matter to anyone who uses visualizations for their business: Which is more important,
clarity or memorability? It seems like an easy answer, of course: Just build towards both and you’ll be fine. While that would be great, the evidence shows that the principles of a memorable data visualization design don’t always align with the principles of a very clear visualization.

Years ago, there was no debate about which was better – data visualizations were almost exclusively used for decision making and data analysis, thus clarity was the most crucial. More recently, visualizations have become marketing and sales tools and therefore a more memorable product is desirable. No matter what purpose your visualizations are meant to serve, if you understand the fundamentals of both sides of the debate, you can more effectively design visualizations that meet your needs.

How Chart Junk and Data Ink Impact Your Visualization

First, some definitions:

  • Chartjunk: Design elements added to a data visualization that are not strictly necessary to understand the data (i.e. a 3-dimensional effect applied to the bars of a bar chart).
  • Data-Ink: The “ink” on your visualization dedicated solely to presenting the data itself (i.e. the bars on a bar chart, but not the axis or the title).

These concepts are used to help describe the visual density of a visualization and lie at the core of the battle between clarity and memorability. Traditional visualization designers, those focusing on clarity, advocate for less (preferably even no) chartjunk and a high amount of data-ink. On the other hand, a recent joint study run by students at Harvard and MIT shows that visualizations with more chartjunk and less data-ink are more memorable.

Basically, the more visually striking your visualization is, the more likely it is that people will remember it. However, all of the superfluous design elements will make it harder to interpret the data being presented, and may make exploration downright impossible.

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When is Clarity Most Important? Memorability?

Theoretical expositions on the value of design in visualizations is interesting – but what’s really important is how you use those theories in your own business. Knowing which principles apply comes down to understanding the purpose of your visualization:

  • Minimalist, clarity-focused design is best if you’re designing data visualizations to make decisions from, if the design won’t be seen for long, or if it’s a non-critical talking point in your presentation (if it’s not meant to be the center of attention, don’t make it stand out).
  • Visually rich, memorability-focused design is most appropriate if your visualization has a marketing/sales purpose or if your data is meant to be the primary focus of a presentation and will be seen for a long period.

However, minimalist doesn’t mean plain or boring, just as visually rich doesn’t mean that the visualization should assault your eyes with colors, shapes and little waving cartoon men. Data visualization design is as much art as it is science. No matter what your final objective, the visualization must be pleasing to the eye (or it may be memorable for the wrong reasons).

Finding a Compromise between Clarity and Memorability

Despite the evidence to the contrary, clarity and memorability are not opposites on some imaginary scale of data visualization design. Instead, they are separate ingredients that you should mix according to their final purpose.

Minimalistic designs should still have some style (after all, even a pie chart is more artistic than a table of percentages). What’s important is that the flair doesn’t do anything to detract from the data being presented. That same Harvard/MIT study shows that even when additional chartjunk isn’t added, visualizations are more memorable when they include:

  • High contrast colors/design
  • More color
  • Clear definition as an image
  • Unique visualizations like diagrams instead of the more common pie/bar charts

The same goes for visualization designed to be memorable and visually striking – if the data being presented isn’t clear, you’ll end up with meaningless marketing. Like the Apple commercial from the 1984 Super Bowl, people will remember the marketing without remembering its purpose. Even visualizations with abundant chartjunk can adhere to these principles for clarity:

  • Use labels
  • Separate layers by applying different colors/weights to the data elements vs the non-data design elements
  • Select colors that fit your visualization – don’t force in colors that don’t fit just to make a more colorful end product

No matter what the purpose of your visualization is, they all have the same goal: Connect with your audience and make an impression. By having a clear understanding of the impression you want to make, and remembering the principles of design that will get you there, your visualizations will be perfectly suited to your needs.

Let Boost Labs help you find the right balance of clarity and memorability. Contact our data visualization experts to learn how we can create stunning visuals for your internal reporting or marketing efforts.

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