How to effectively annotate your data visualisations

From social media to news to advertising, today’s world is more visual than ever—and with good reason. After all, 65% of us are visual learners, which means we absorb and retain visual information better compared to just reading it. Giant blocks of text are no longer enough to capture and keep anybody’s attention, really. In fact, the average consumer is 30 times more likely to be drawn to content that contains an infographic over a text-only story. Because of this, we are seeing an increasing use of data-visualization.

Data visualization isn’t just good for catching a viewer’s eye, though. Recent studies show that presenting information in the form of charts and tables can even make your message more believable and persuasive. And, of the different visual media out there, infographics were found to be the most effective medium for information retention.

Use good visualizing best practices

When creating any data visualization, it’s imperative to make it as clear and understandable as possible. This means thinking about the information you need to include (and exclude), being aware of your audience and presenting information in a way that they will understand.

A significant, yet often forgotten element to consider when making a chart is the use of annotations. These are shapes and text labels and that can be added to a chart to make it more informative and more easily interpreted. Annotations can improve clarity and offer more insight into the information displayed at a particular point on the plot area.

Make your annotations helpful

An example of an instance when annotations are incredibly helpful is when you have a drastic change in data, like in the chart below by Alicia F. Bembenek. When viewers see such a shift, they will inevitably be left wondering what happened to cause it. While the chart is accurate and explanatory even without the annotations, the added text definitely helps to qualify the data and better present the main point of the chart. Since this chart was designed to show why some specific dog breeds spiked in popularity at certain times, it makes sense to provide these detailed explanations in the annotations instead of leaving it up the viewers to figure it out.


And while you want to provide viewers with all the knowledge necessary to understand your chart, remember that more isn’t always better. In fact, when it comes to annotations, it is usually smart to rely on less. The example chart does a great job of utilizing annotations to tell the intended story and nothing else. Every small spike or dip in data could have been annotated and explained, but that likely would have left viewers even more confused.

Keep it simple

Instead of cluttering your chart with too much information, it is important to ensure you are only highlighting the information you want to focus on. Charts are a valuable tool because they can say a lot in a little space, but they do not always need to. It is perfectly acceptable—even beneficial—to include only the most pertinent details in your annotations and leave the rest up to the viewer.

When planning your annotations, you need to decide what you want to annotate and which details you want to include, but you should also consider the room you have to work with. Be sure to declutter your data. Your chart should be evenly and adequately spaced with minimal, easily understood annotations that enhance your chart, not detract from it.

As visual content becomes increasingly prevalent for attracting audiences and aiding in information retention, data visualizations skills are an invaluable asset that allow for the creation of engaging, edifying material. Knowing how to effectively annotate is a good place to start.

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