Clear Off the Table

We received a lot of attention for our Data Looks Better Naked post. People got bored on Christmas Eve and some interesting searches for Star Trek somehow landed them on our page. Now their charts look better.

The principles outlined in that article aren’t just for charts, though. You can apply them to your data tables with similar improvements in readability and aesthetics. To paraphrase Edward Tufte, too often when we create a data table, we imprison our data behind a wall of grid lines. Instead we can let the data itself form the structure that aids readability by making better use of alignment and whitespace.

In the gif below we start with a table formatted similar to one of Excel’s many styling options which, much like the chart styles, do nothing to improve the table. Progressive deletions and some reorganization deliver a clearer and more compelling picture.

As with charts, rather than dressing up our data we should be stripping it down. For more information on table design, you can read Chapter 8 of Stephen Few’s Show Me the Numbers. My apologies to any true fans of 80′s wrestling, the stats below, much like the ring rivalries, are entirely fabricated.

The slide deck for viewing at your own pace:

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15 Responses to Clear Off the Table

  1. Thibaut de Hollain says:

    Nice! Clear and informative. Just a question: what did you replace Calibri with?

  2. Faraz says:

    If not Calibri, then what other font do you suggest (or used in this concept).

    • Joey says:

      I used open sans, a free font from Google. But you need to be careful if you are sending out presentations or word docs to others the font must exist on the recipient’s computer. If you do PDFs you don’t need to worry about this.

  3. Frank says:

    These are beautiful and brilliant.
    Are there modules that can be used to learn these techniques by doing?



    • Joey says:

      I suggest you open one of your own tables in excel or word, and just try applying the same steps to it. Its even better when you see your own work visibly improve.

  4. Mike says:

    Very useful, thank you.

    For your next one, please can you do organisation charts? It would be very interesting to get your perspective on how to keep them attractive and useful as they get denser and more convoluted.

  5. Andy Brice says:

    Whilst most of these are beautiful improvements, I find tracking across the rows quite a struggle without some subtle horizontal lines or stripes. So people with worse vision or reading skills than me are really going to suffer.

    • Joey says:

      Andy, with both of these posts, I’m merely showing some guidelines, not hard fast rules. In this case where the groups of data are never more than 5 rows, I find tracking quite easy. If, however, there were many more rows or the data couldn’t be separated by whitespace, I would recommend using alternating fills, though they should be as subtle as possible.

  6. Gable says:

    Tufte would approve, thank you for this guide.

  7. Cynthia says:

    I would prefer to avoid Open Sans since I typically share spreadsheets with others that probably won’t have it installed on their machines.

    Is there another common font that you would recommend?

    • Joey says:

      Gill Sans is nice for tables, but 1′s l’s and I’s look exactly the same, so I wouldn’t set it as my default. Franklin Gothic is a decent serif font. I would just try a few. There is actually nothing wrong with Calibri, it is just in every presentation and document you read because it is the default.

  8. Love the animated way to show it off, and most examples. One though: The dates are still sort of gibberish. No human says “May-2011.”

    If you keep working on this, I’d add some about how to make them responsive. Too many tables don’t do well with responsive design so are useless on most screens. While not designed for an RWD world, the green-boxed example here is something that’s worked well for variable-scale display areas for me:

  9. Thanks a lot for the inspirations, helps me a lot making better tables for my clients!

  10. Sarah says:

    I love Calibri.