Good decisions are not based on data. They are based on understanding the data.
This is not exactly news. Read this quote from Graphic Methods For Presenting Facts, by Willard Brinton:
Millions of dollars yearly are spent in the collection of data, with the fond expectation that the data will automatically cause the correction of the conditions studied. Though accurate data and real facts are valuable, when it comes to getting results the manner of presentation is ordinarily more important than the facts themselves . . . . As the cathedral is to its foundation so is an effective presentation of facts to the data.
Brinton’s book was published in 1914. So people had problems presenting data then. They have the same problems today. As Brinton pointed out, people who study the data and reach a conclusion may think they’re done; that answer will be evident. In fact, half of their task still lies ahead of them—convincing others that their answer is the right one.
Part of the problem is that with so much data and so many computer applications out there equipped to produce bad graphics, the graphic landscape is actually worse today than it was 104 years ago. Graphics can flash and dazzle with a few easy keystrokes; but unless they get an audience to understand what is happening and why, they fail.
Part of the secret is thinking with your eyes, and getting others to think with theirs. What best shows the relationship between this and that? How can that be shown simply and honestly?
This task is especially important when you’re presenting “up” to corporate superiors or to the board of directors. Someone up there may resist the unexpected, resort to some irrelevant past experience as a guide, leap to the wrong conclusion, and carry the day—all because the presenter failed to present the facts effectively.
Good graphics matter because they connect good data with good decisions.