How to use symbols for greater impact in charts

Using sym­bols to rep­re­sent data can increase impact and under­stand­ing of the under­ly­ing data. In this post, I’ll dis­cuss some best prac­tices for doing this suc­cess­fully in charts, maps, and diagrams.

The fol­low­ing weather sym­bols are used to show driz­zle, rain, and snow a. The sym­bols look roughly like driz­zle, rain­drops, and snowflakes:

Weather Sym­bols: Driz­zle, Rain, Snow

They are com­bined in con­sis­tent man­ner and an anal­ogy of the phys­i­cal process they are describing:

  • More sym­bols mean light, medium or heavy
  • Sym­bols that are stacked ver­ti­cally mean inter­mit­tent, while hor­i­zon­tal mean continuous.

    Weather Sym­bols

These sym­bols work because they look some­what like the con­di­tion they are describ­ing so it is some­what intu­itive (and mem­o­rable) what the sym­bls are talk­ing about.

Here’s another exam­ple of sym­bols, this time fairly cryptic:

These could be but­tons, sieves, pipes. It’s dif­fi­cult to under­stand their mean­ing. Even know­ing their loca­tion (a label on cloth­ing) doesn’t make it appar­ent. The sym­bols rep­re­sent a dryer and the col­or­ings rep­re­sent no heat, low heat, medium, high heat, and any heat. These are some­what incon­sis­tent as you might expect the filled black cir­cle to be “high­est heat” and the blank cir­cle to be “no heat”. Here’s the entire set:

These are fairly com­plex sym­bols for the dryer with lines below indi­cat­ing nor­mal, per­ma­nent press, and del­i­cate, but the order might be expected to be reversed: no lines = del­i­cate, 1 line = per­ma­nent press and 2 lines for nor­mal (with the line indi­cat­ing “more vibration”.

All in all, the fab­ric care sym­bols are more com­plex, less con­sis­tent, and more dif­fi­cult to understand.

Here are some thoughts on how to use sym­bols effec­tively in charts and diagrams:

  • Use sim­ple sym­bols that are read­ily under­stood
    If pos­si­ble, the sym­bols should sug­gest or relate to the actual quan­tity they are describ­ing. If needed, add num­bers or words oto help the mean­ing, if not rel­a­tively apparent.
  • Pro­vide a leg­end for what the sym­bols mean
    A clear leg­end explain­ing the mean­ing of indi­vid­ual sym­bols is help­ful; some expla­na­tion of the ratio­nale can also help. (ie what think­ing went into the spe­cific shapes or combinations)
  • Be con­sis­tent in how the sym­bols are com­bined and used
    Develop a “gram­mar” of how the sym­bols are com­bined. For exam­ple, with the weather sym­bols, more sym­bols means “heav­ier”; for the laun­dry sym­bols, more dots means “hot­ter tem­per­a­ture”. If you are try­ing to add another dimen­sion (inter­mit­tent vs. con­tin­u­ous, slower speeds vs. higher), be con­sis­tent in com­bin­ing them. espe­cially across dif­fer­ent sym­bol sets. The weather sym­bols are very con­sis­tent across driz­zle, rain, and snow. (there’s also a com­bi­na­tion rain and snow sym­bol for sleet)
  • Test the sym­bols on a wide vari­ety of users
    Test out the sym­bols and see if they are intu­itive and help the user under­stand the chart or dia­gram. If not, mod­ify them owhere ambigu­ous or con­fus­ing r increase train­ing and user aids (leg­ends, guides) to make them more eas­ily understood.

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