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I am an analyst, and it seems that management is allergic to anything that's not a line graph, and have asked me to put the information into a line graph. Now I have all the information, but it appears incredibly clustered and lacks a coherent comparison.

Now, this information is for executive management, so I need to be able to provide them a quick "layman's" overview of the information. They'll have meetings and such to discuss the details later on, but for this management meeting, they need an easily readable chart that compares each year to the actuals without bogging down the chart with too many points.

Herein lies my problem: there are 4-5 years of data depending on the division, and at least 6 data points per month. Because of the industry, it's a requirement it must be broken down monthly, and all points must be represented on the sheet.

I've experimented with the visuals for this, and the first attempt, when brought to my boss (CFO), was that it's hard to read and distinguish data points. I replaced the real data with dummy data below.

They want the same data in a line graph, but after I did, my boss told me it looked like a toddler with a coloring book, so I can't use this representation.

How can I highlight each point when there are hundreds of individual data points without making it clogged with data?

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Try a different approach

First thing you should try is to find a color palette that would be both easily readable and pleasing to look at, but judging by the comment:

"...toddler with a coloring book..."

Just using different palette might not solve your issue. In that case, think about these:

  • Separate the line graphs. Are all of the values directly comparable? Could you not split them in two groups sharing the x-axis?
  • Give colors meaning. Is one value a forcast for some of the others? Use similar tones (e.g. a paler or darker version) to logically link them, thus reducing the number of colors needed.
  • Use line styles. Similar as above. Forcast can be dashed and thinner, actuals might be solid. Last year can be lighter color, last year's forecast lighter and dashed.
  • Use markers. Use symbolic markers for each datapoint and only thin lines between them. This may also be a horrible idea, but try to experiment with it.
  • Combine. Use nice solid line for the important info and then markers (only) for other data to consider (look at bullet chart for inspiration of charting target vs actual). You can use area graph (of light shades or low opacity) as a sort of background showing a baseline, or last year, or whatever.

It may also be the case that there is no satisfying your boss, in which case leave the job.

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By picking better colors

Your colors are really hard to differentiate, you have 3 blues that all meld together and a grey that just fades into the background, yellow which should almost never be used in graphs or anything because of contrast issues; the orange is okay.

EDIT: I thought you had 3 blues but you had 2, the grey was visually making me see a third blue. THAT'S HOW BAD THE COLORS ARE!

You need a HIGH CONTRAST distinct pallet so each line can stand out and you should then use SYMBOLS to denote points of interest.

Just look at this example graph:

enter image description here

I can see each line, I can easily read each point of interest and I have no trouble keeping up with the information being presented.

Other things that can help you are to expand the size of the months. They are super close and could really benefit from more x-axis space. This would open up the lines more and help when you have 2 lines that might be overlapping.

  • I agree the colors are bad, but there's significantly more than 3 lines, how can I handle that? There's only so many colors that would work, so a straight RGB is out. Also, this makes the chart smaller with less data to work with because yearly versus monthly, so less overlap. What changes can I make to rectify those? – Anoplexian - Reinstate Monica Sep 7 '18 at 17:02
  • @Anoplexian So you have 5 lines? That really doesn't change much. You can google color pallets and you can find suitable sites/premade palettes to use. Just find one that has nice contrast and you can use that. Bear in mind that the graph is just an EXAMPLE, not what you SHOULD do verbatim. – Ovaryraptor Sep 7 '18 at 17:09
  • I did that, hence the existing color choices (some colors don't fly well with management). Also, there's significantly more overlap than your chart because of the data, could you show what you mean using some similar looks? I get that it's an example, but it seems to significantly differ from my chart. Maybe I'm not understanding correctly, can you show me how it makes them more visible? When I did what you suggested, here's what it came out as. – Anoplexian - Reinstate Monica Sep 7 '18 at 17:15
  • @Anoplexian As the "designer"/analyst you need to be better at saying what works visually and what will represent your data better. Be vocal and back-up your choices. Your new version looks WAY better. Try expanding the size each month takes up and see how that affects the visibility. – Ovaryraptor Sep 8 '18 at 3:04
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In your question you say that this graph is for a meeting, and not a printed publication. So, to add to the other answers about how to graphically design the graph, I would recommend exploiting the fact that you have another dimension to work with: time (as in, literally the time you take to hold the presentation).

You do not have to show the data all at once. Instead, build up the graph over 5 slides, adding the data line by line, highlighting the new graph when adding it, and letting the other graphs fade into the background for that slide. Explain the relevance of that line, and then go on to the next line. Only at the very end, show the graphic you already have, with all lines present and equally visible. Thus, your viewers do not have to understand all the information at once, which makes it easier to process.

EDIT: Just for reference, the site https://policyviz.com/ has great information about how to graphically represent data. Some of it is paid content, but there is a lot of free stuff.

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