Content & messages

Simple tables that solve big information problems.

Everybody is in love with data visualizations and often forgets the first format of visualisation: tables. If well-designed, they still work. Especially on digital.

Tables are difficult to handle and information designers do not love them.

For many, tables are a nightmare or a challenge. For those dealing with Power-point slides – presentation authors or readers -, tables are definitely a nightmare: too much data, presented in the wrong context.

For those working at business intelligence applications and dashboard developers, tables are still one of the biggest data presentation challenges to solve: often, why there is not a clear distinction between the use cases of spreadsheets made to enable working on data and dashboards made to see and explore data.

For digital media communicators – whether journalists or corporate publishers or marketers – tables have become a sort of taboo. Information designers only consider the table as a sort of intermediary form: a transitional state between the raw data and the finished visualization. They rarely think about it as a visualization form.

Tables can still help a lot communicating data.

But that is not true. Well-designed, simple tables can help a lot. They ARE a visualization format, and they deserve to be designed and used when they can solve information presentation challenges. Sometimes, incredibly simple tables can explain topics way more efficiently than with a long article.

The example I found recently on the Berliner Zeitung is a proof of that: how powerful an alternative to longer narratives a table (simple, not overload with data, not numeric) can be.

This table answers to one of the most compelling questions of the 2020/2021 Corona-winter: how can we distinguish between a normal cold and/or flu from Covid-19 ?

Tables on mobile and web: better than ever.

I am one of those that used to hate tables, and one of those that has to deal with them on documents, presentations and web pages.

So, I welcome the tools – like Datawrapper and Flourish – that made possible also to people, not 100% familiar with code and information design, to create good-looking, form-follow-function tables and publish there almost everywhere.

And we all can learn from the effort made to make the best of the two worlds: graphs and tables. Check out this example: it shows that a table can be more than a table – and does NOT need to look like a spreadsheet.

Little data story, quick conclusions.

“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

  1. Form follows function: well-designed tables can be still better than text or infographics. Start by understanding your readers use cases. Not from what you want to display.
  2. Digital means mobile-first, nowadays: ensure that readers can check digital tables on mobile and, if you publish a table on a newsletter (that rarely allows html5 embedding), link the graphic file to a page where users can see it responsive and when needed, interactive.
  3. Minimalism is the first commandment. Fewer is better. But not at the expense of comprehension. That is why always remember to label, explain, and describe data. Introduce the table with a simple message that says what you want your readers to take home.

Additional readings: what are tables and how to use them.

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