Content counts most of all

The content of any document should be the most important feature. The content should be presented in a way which is easy to understand and absorb: some data is best presented in a table while other data is more suited to charts or figures. The method which best presents the information should be used. Formatting, while important, should not interfere with the document’s content. Unnecessary images, table grid lines, borders and shading should be removed as they obstruct information and make documents less readable.

Rarely, if ever, will an academic publication make use of clip-art type images or colourful text and shading. These things would detract from the integrity of the publication and force the most important feature, the content, into a smaller space. Instead, space is used entirely by content items: text, charts and tables.

Show smart comparisons, contrasts and differences

In any kind of analytical work, great importance is placed on answering “Compared to what?” Whether the intention is to show differences in space, time or outcome, it is essential to show appropriate, intelligent comparisons to correctly present the results. Comparing against the right information emphasises the topic.

Showing the changes in housing prices for the past 10 years against personal disposable income for the same period emphasises the difficulty currently faced by home buyers. Comparing this against the number of new houses built in the same period, while related, fails to highlight the issue.

Use small multiples

When needing to show perspective, transition through time and space or many related items, placing them all together allows the reader to absorb not only the individual items, but the differences between the items. Small, related images, used multiple times reveal all at once a vast range of alternatives and options. Whether it is for something as minor as the different images of the Queen on the back of Australian coins, or something more serious, such as hourly vital sign readings for a worsening intensive care patient, showing all items together gives a bigger picture to the audience.

When learning the alphabet in sign language, the different letters are presented together with the hand positions that relate. In this way, the student can see clearly the slight changes between letters and movements which may be otherwise lost if presented across several paragraphs, pages or even documents.


Show causality and systemic structure

When reporting an event, showing the final outcome is essential. Equally important, and often overlooked, is to present the events which lead to the outcome. Providing an accurate, logical breakdown of contributing factors not only gives the reader the bigger picture, but also gives them a reason to trust the final results, as they can clearly see how they were formed.

When looking at supermarket price rises, several external factors, often ignored, could contribute to the overall rise. Availability of stock, increased production costs, increased transportation cost and competitor prices could all influence an overall price rise. Listing all these factors, clearly showing how they can influence overall price, will give the audience a greater understanding of the outcome.


Show more than one variable

Our world is a complex place. So many different factors can contribute to an outcome that restricting an analysis to focus on changes in a single variable, while straightforward, often does not reflect the complexities involved. Extending the scope of a document to include more factors gives the reader a greater understanding of what is happening.

When testing the effectiveness of electrical components, measurements of current and voltage are essential. External factors, such as temperature, humidity, particles in the air and external electrical interference should all be taken into consideration. While these may seem insignificant at the time, they will become important when reproducing the results at a different location.

Show related comparisons adjacent in space

If showing two or more related items, they should be presented together. Do not force the reader to remember the details of Chart A when presenting Chart B later in a document. By presenting the related items adjacently in space, immediate comparisons can be made. Stacking these items in time by introducing them individually means subtle differences cannot be observed quite as easily. The reader must rely on memory or page turning in order to notice variations between the items. Similarly, tables of data should have related rows or columns grouped. This allows for simple comparing between similar items without detracting from the overall feature.

When interior designers and decorators advertise their work, they generally use before and after photos to highlight their work. By showing the two images together, potential clients can clearly see the difference between the two images. If these two images were separated and shown independently, the reader would have to rely on memory or page turning to see the differences.


Put everything on the universal grid

When presenting data of varying magnitude, it is important to ensure the scale of the data is not lost. Placing data sets of different magnitude on the same plane and failing to specify units of measurement are common causes of confusion. Placing all data on the one grid removes this issue. The differences in magnitude become obvious and only one scale needs to be applied. Data is often misrepresented by ignoring changes in magnitude, resulting in poor decisions or incorrect outcomes.

Museums make use of the universal grid when presenting fossilised remains of ancient creatures. In a dinosaur exhibit, an average sized person is drawn to show the huge difference in size between dinosaurs and humans. This visual comparison of images on the same scale emphasises the difference in size in a way that numbers could not.

Integrate words, numbers, diagrams and images

Words, numbers, figures, images and tables belong together. When reading a document, the reader should not have to search through pages for a graphic attached as an appendix – it should be presented alongside the text for easy reference. Presenting all evidence together, regardless of form, strengthens an argument and makes documents more readable.

Rarely will a textbook be released which is entirely text. Instead, figures and tables are presented when concepts and ideas are discussed.

Document everything and declare data sources

When creating an analytical document, no information should be excluded or assumed. With charts or graphics, labels, titles any captions should be used to ensure they are understood. When the document is the result of several steps, each step should be explained and its details listed. If external information is used, the source of this information should be clearly stated. All documents should be dated with the authors named for accountability.

The credibility of a document is directly linked to the integrity and quality of the author and data used. Individuals or companies with missing or incomplete paperwork are inherently suspicious to tax officials, auditors, investigators – and clients.