How to Win at Data Visualization in 2016, According to Experts

Scottish engineer and economist William Playfair created the world’s first information graphic – line graphs – way back in 1786. Here’s how it looked like:


Pretty advanced for the 18th century!

Since then, people have used pictures and graphs to help others make better sense of data and information. Thanks to data visualization, many extraordinary and compelling stories have been released to the world over the years, and 2015 was no exception.

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve faced one too many heads nodding off to sleep as you push through yet another data presentation. Now, you want to use graphics to tell a story – preferably not a bedtime one – with that same data.


Well, you’re in luck. In this article, we talked to two of the foremost experts in this industry, Naomi B. Robbins (together with Joyce T. Robbins) and Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, to find out their thoughts on what worked in 2015, and what the major trends in data visualization in 2016 will be.

Cole is the author of Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals and writes the popular blog Storytelling with Data, while Naomi wrote Creating More Effective Graphs and has spoken on graphs to numerous organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO.

We hope that their insights in this article will help you in your journey to tell better stories!

Best data visualizations of 2015

A simple bar graph might qualify as a “data visualization,” but it’s neither creative nor compelling on its own. What exactly does great data visualization look like?

Here are the four things that Cole looks out for:

1) A sensible display. “The choice of graph or visual is appropriate given the data and the purpose.”

2) Absence of clutter. “I disdain it! The presence of elements that don’t carry information or aid in interpretation in some way will hurt, not help, when it comes to overall effectiveness.”

3) Affordance in design. “Through strategic use of things like color, size of elements, spatial position, and text, it is so clear to the audience how to interact with the data visualization that they likely don’t even notice the design.”

4) A clear story. “For me, the best data visualizations are the pivotal point in a story. They employ written or spoken narrative (or a combination thereof) to make the story the visualization is meant to tell clear.”

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Given these examples, here are her favorite examples of data visualization in 2015 (click to see more):

How Ebola Spreads by Washington Post


Is the Nasdaq in Another Bubble? by Wall Street Journal


Battling Infectious Diseases in the 20th Century by Wall Street Journal


This is How Fast America Changes its Mind by Bloomberg


New Horizon’s Pluto Flyby by New York Times


An Unprecedented Drought by Pitch Interactive


The Truth About T-Rex by Visual Loop


If the Moon were only 1 Pixel by Josh Worth


On the other hand, Claudio Silva’s work – which he presented at Data Visualization New York last year – was Naomi’s highlight of 2015. Claudio is a professor of computer science and engineering at New York University.

“Among the visualizations we’ve reviewed, the work of Claudio Silva and his colleagues at NYU stands out for its sophistication, creativity, and speed,” she says.

Together with the rest of the audience at that event, she was particularly impressed with two of his projects:

TaxiVis, a study of New York City taxi trips


Urbane, a 3D framework to support data driven decision making in urban development


Major data visualization trends in 2016

Looking at the stunning examples of data visualization above, it’s clear – and impressive – how far we’ve progressed since the humble line and bar graphs and charts were invented.

In part, such great strides have been made thanks to the rapid advancement of technology, which has give us access to an unprecedented amount of data.

“With this comes an increasing demand to be able to make sense out of it all,” says Cole. “Telling a story with data is a way of making it meaningful, helping it to both resonate and stick with an audience.”


Because of this, she believes that data storytelling will continue to trend in 2016:

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen “storytelling” go from something reserved for books and movies to one of the biggest buzzwords when it comes to data and analytics (perhaps even outpacing “big data”). I expect this trend will continue.”

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Correspondingly, demand for data scientists and storytellers – those who are “adept at not only analyzing data” but also “helping others to make sense of it by weaving it into a narrative that can be used to impart understanding and drive action” – will continue to grow as well.

[Tweet ““Telling a story with data is a way of making it meaningful, helping it to resonate & stick””]

Beyond gathering data, technology has also given us the ability to rapidly create charts and graphs on a large scale. In fact, Naomi predicts that “more and more companies will try to automate the drawing of charts and graphs.”

However, while automation will make data visualization more efficient, it will continue to be bound by the limitations of chart choosers and graph types, she adds.

Naomi also believes that 2016 will be the year of interactive content – more and more visualizations will be interactive. However, she does caution care in determining when would be best to use such content:

“Interactivity offers users a wonderful opportunity to engage with data on their own. At the same time, there are many situations, particularly time-sensitive ones, in which users would be better served by formats that clearly and quickly emphasize the most important features of a dataset for the issues at stake.”

What do you think will dominate data visualizations in 2016? Let us know in the comments below!

Images via Wikipedia, Flickr, Flickr

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