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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Storytelling with data – What is a table?
- Flourish blog – Five situations to use a table.
- A List Apart – Design tips and tricks, plus css snippets to use
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