Sorry, but your charts are ugly

Ian Lurie

I once got fired for improving sales 300%.

I showed a client a report. It was awesome and I was dang proud of the results. The report read like this:

Sales from organic search last year were $50,000. Sales from organic search this year were $150,000.

Sales from PPC last year were $60,000, against a spend of $30,000. Sales from PPC this year were $70,000, against a spend of $10,000.

The client read the report, pursed their lips thoughtfully and said “Yeah, but my ROI from pay per click marketing sucked.”

I started getting a twitch in my left eye that persists to this day.

“No”, I said, “See, last year you spent $30k to get $60k. This year you spent $10k to get $70k. That’s better, right?”

“Well, OK, but my ROI can’t have improved that much if you only added $10k to my sales.”


This is an extreme case, obviously. But since then I’ve considered the presentation of the data as important as the data itself. That may seem horrible—the content’s what’s important, right? But it’s a harsh reality: When you’re presenting internet marketing reports to someone who has about 30 spare seconds, image is everything.

Want to avoid my sorry fate? Here are a few tips I’ve stolen from others over the years:

No extra crap

3D? Faded colors? Shiny bar graphs? No.

I said no.

Take your finger away from the drop shadow button and step. away. slowly.

Look at this graph:

lousy line graph

It’s puuuurrrttttyyyyyy. But can you take it all in and figure out what it’s trying to show? No, unless it’s trying to show that someone bought the latest version of Numbers.

Now try this version, instead:

nicer line graph

Still not perfect, but it’s an improvement, right?

So, rule 1: No extra crap.

  • No 3D effects.
  • No weird color fills.
  • No ‘creative’ backgrounds.

If you’re feeling creative, focus that energy to making your data really easy to interpret.

One dataset per chart

If you’ve got multiple columns in your spreadsheet, and need to show separate trends for each, use separate charts. Trust me on this one – it always works better. Here’s the example from above. I created a second Y axis so the ‘conversions’ line is easier to read. Yeah, right:

too many lines graph

This isn’t too bad, but it still makes your reader work. Try this instead—separate the graphs to multiple smaller ones:

nice multiple lines

A few hints on this method:

  • Where possible, use the same scale. I can’t do that with the ‘conversions’ graph, at least on the Y axis. But for the ‘Clicks’ and ‘Cost’, I set them both to a maximum of 1000. That lets you compare like with like.
  • Remove every non-essential decoration when you’re using small charts like these. Even gridlines. Your reader isn’t looking for precise numbers. You can have the data table nearby for that.
  • I also removed the round circles that were plotting points. I’m not a big fan of those.

Don’t get cute with the data

Sometimes it’s tempting to do things like change the Y axis to have a higher minimum value. That emphasizes trends:

messy y axis

Please don’t, unless there’s a really good reason, and you tell the reader.

Don’t be afraid to get creative

Sometimes, your client needs to really see the data. Don’t be afraid to try creative approaches, like using repeating symbols:

page views

Don’t go wild, but sometimes using what Tufte calls ‘small multiples’ can really go a long way.

Keep it simple

Really, all of this is about keeping it simple. A simple line graph. A simple bar chart. No decoration. Just the facts, ma’am.
If you want to learn a ton more about this, try

these books:

Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from these books.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. “But since then I’ve considered the presentation of the data as important as the data itself. That may seem horrible—the content’s what’s important, right?”
    Nah, not horrible. That’s the foundation of design. All design sends a message. You could easily just write or type the message. When it comes to data, design serves the function of validation.
    And you’re right, you don’t need to make a rock-star infographic to adequately inform/persuade. (In fact, that might be counterproductive in some cases). Keep it simple, keep it honest, and your clients will appreciate it.

  2. Speaking of vain analysis, I’d like to lodge an complaint with this line in the intro, “When you’re presenting internet marketing reports to someone who has about 30 spare seconds, image is everything.”
    Where was the classic Ian wit and sarcasm? I was looking for something more like “someone who has the analytical skills of a brick”.
    Other than that, great article. Solid content is what keeps me coming back. Keep it up.

  3. Ian – take a look at your “creative” chart. I see you went really creative with it 😉 1 page == 1M, and if so than top one is ~18.4M, as you’ve wrote, but bottom one shows ~12,3M, while it’s written that the pageviews were 13,3M.
    You missed one icon there.
    hehehe 🙂

  4. “Fired.” That was awesome!!!
    I love your chart ideas and the theme of this piece. It reminds me of a quote I strive to live by… “The meaning of communication is the response you get.”
    When I focus on this look at every way that I can communicate my idea in a way that is impossible to misunderstand because…
    Misunderstanding is really the rule in communication. Most communication is misunderstood. Most of the things that we say to others or write to each other, most of the things we communicate, don’t get across fully.
    And that’s why the rule of thumb: Eliminate Misunderstanding
    Don’t just try to force your message across. Work to eliminate all possibilities of mis-understandings.
    Thank You Ian for helping me reach this outcome with my charts!!!

  5. Is it just me, or is there a list of book missing at the bottom?
    Otherwise, great article! I’m learning to add more visualization to my online writing, that seems to attract more readers and keep their attention. Charts are one of the way to accomplish that, so I think I’ll be using them more in future.
    And I’m also a fan of keeping things simple. That helps in many areas.

  6. Great article. It’s always important to point out the facts in a way that’s easy to understand. Often people take something else away from your data than what you had intended. A clear chart that presents the facts is a good way to go.

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