Data Visualisation: what is it?

Data visualisation is the graphical or pictorial display of data in a way that is understandable to its reader. The history of visualising data can be traced back many years into time, when cave men engraved maps on pieces of stones.

Over the years the development of Art, Science and Computers has brought a dramatic change to data visualisation. Visualising data has now become a critical part of modern life; being used across many spheres of life. It has become a new way of understanding data which helps to improve the decision making process.

Infographics Vrs Data Visualisation

Some people use these two words to mean the same thing. Julie Steel in her book Designing Data Visualisations strikes a distinction between infographics and data visualisation.

An infographic uses static display of images, texts and other elements of design to display information that is aesthetically rich  to the reader. It can either be manually drawn or through the use of software such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.

A data visualisation on the other hand, uses algorithms to programmatically display information to its reader using a graphing/charting software. It is often aesthetically bare.


The human brain is designed to see things and make snap decisions. The quality of these decisions is most often dependent on accuracy of information gathered. Data visualisation helps to convey information in a manner that is easy and simple to understand. This is achieved through the use of statistical tools; which help to find patterns in the data by distilling the data into information.

It also helps to present data is a manner that is easy to interpret hence saving time and energy. Top level managers are able to leverage this to make critical decisions for their companies.

Data visualisations can cause people to change their mind or behaviour towards a particular subject.  As the saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words”. A successful infographic can present tonnes of information that readers may have avoided reading in text, into a beautiful picture. Thus making it easy to get people to engage with a subject using a beautiful infographic which is simple to read and understand.


Edward Tufte a pioneer in data visualisation advises that “In the arrangement of data visualisation every single pixel should testify directly to content”. You must design your visualisation to reveal the truth in the data rather than clutter it with unnecessary design elements.

Julie Steel also suggests three basic principles: the data, the reader and the designer. The relationship between these three must always inform the design of your visualisation.

A successful Data Visualisation should also tell a story. This can be achieved by digging deep into a data set to get the key points in it. A narrative can then be created out of the relationship between these key points.

Here are a few websites for digging deeper.
Information Is Beautiful
Flowing Data
Many Eyes
Open Knowledge Foundation
Open Data Institute
Off Book