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Visual Design in Business Intelligence: Designing For Eyes

To fully understand how to present visually appealing content, we need to understand the tendencies of how people perceive information. 

In the first post of this series, I introduced the concept of Visual Design and described how content, audience, and presentation interact to create effective visual communications. But to fully understand how to present appealing content, we need to go deeper. We need to understand the basic tendencies of how people visually perceive information.

It may seem strange in the context of business intelligence, but the fashion industry can teach us a lot in this regard. Consider this: Euromonitor International has estimated that the fashion industry  will exceed  $2 trillion dollars by 2018. Isn’t it all about aesthetics after all? So, for our purposes, principles for the visual design of dashboards come from fashion!

Principle 1: Eyes Follow the Lines

This is the mother of all design principles in fashion. From this principle alone comes a lot of fashion design concepts like lines of a dress, flat ironing hair styles, the use of mascara or eye liners, and so forth. Why  do humans place so much importance on the use of lines in their designs, and how can we make use of this?

Look over  the following set of numbers:

Did you read them horizontally (80, 55 then 67, 25), or vertically (80, 67 then 55, 25)?

If you brought a group of people together and asked them the question at the same time, you would likely have almost a 50/50 split or most people reading horizontally.

Now read these numbers:

Again, did you read them horizontally (80, 55 then 67, 25), or vertically (80, 67 then 55, 25)?

Notice a difference? Most people would read these numbers vertically now.  Just by adding a line, we were able to influence the how these numbers are read. Why? Because our eyes naturally follow the vertical line, causing us to read the numbers in that order. If you are still not convinced, try adding a horizontal line to the first set of numbers and ask someone else how they read the numbers.

Now, of the pair of graphs below, which graph makes it easier to identify the “trend”?

Most people will select the line graph!

We could continue endlessly with examples like these. The application of this principle to dashboard design can be summarized as follows:

  • Use lines to influence the order in which the information gets processed, how it gets processed (line vs. bar) and to create a visual delineation between separate pieces of information.
  • Avoid too many lines because they can take focus away from the actual useful information and may serve as distractions.
  • Even a thin white space can be effectively used as a separator.

Consider the following dashboards as examples of good use of lines:

The lines on the top KPI Bar delineate the information while adding a pop of color to the dashboard.

The Line graph readily tells the trend of usage over time.

This dashboard has a very good example of ‘white space’ between the title headings being used as a separator. It also is a good example of how to use subtly colored outlines for rectangles to blend in the boundaries better with the background. These do not distract the eyes but help a lot with readability.

We will continue with the principles in the next post of this series. Continue reading to see how these will help you design impactful, visually stunning dashboards!

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