Charting a Smart Course

Great charts can do what words can't – show what you mean in visually expressive ways.A recent piece of direct mail advertising reminded me of the power of charts. Instead of a lot of words and hyperbolic claims, I gazed at a chart that showed the features and prices of the advertiser and its competitors. I took note and made a purchase.

Charts are an eye-friendly way to convey a wealth of information, sorted to make a point.

Charts are a lot more than words or numbers in boxes. They represent a type of structured storytelling, relying on a familiar form of bite-size information in a box. But they have the physical capacity to be much more than a series of note cards on a page.

Great charts organize essential information in compelling ways, often reinforcing key points with strong visuals.

Building charts requires imagination and creativity, not just plopping data into a table and converting it to a pie chart. Some charts can tell the whole story without a single word or number.

Charts can work across disciplines. They can sell products or convey ideas. Their value is making a point quickly through visualization with a minimum of effort and a maximum of recall. That doesn't mean charts are easy to devise. As in writing, it usually takes a lot longer and deeper thought to write one good sentence or create one visually captivating chart.

Marketers, policy advocates and storytellers overlook charts in their arsenal of persuasion. They shouldn't. They often outdo the axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words. As my direct mail advertisement proved, charts can do the whole job by themselves.

This chart organizes information by linking descriptions of vital body systems to a striking image of a human that underscores the message and breaks up the verbiage.This chart uses verticality to contrast and emphasize the pricing of customized products to their more generic cousins.This chart bends the idea of words in a box, providing a lighter touch that conveys information in a friendly, fun manner.