Charts and Tables: How your brain wants to see them
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I get asked by a lot of people how I seem to be able to format my charts and tables so that they look good and still convey the information in the most effective manner. I thought I would share my experience through my blog posts.
The first thing to know is that I like to use a set of visual design rules when building charts and tables and I like to understand why the rules make sense. In this series of articles I am going to attempt to explain the rules and the reasons behind them. Most of these rules are simple and are based on a solid academic foundation.
In this blog post I would like to introduce the Gestalt Laws, a set of design rules based on research into perception psychology. In the 1930’s the German Gestalt school of psychology investigated how the brain groups and organizes visual shapes. Following this research the so-called “Gestalt” laws were established. These laws form much of the foundation of the techniques I use in table design and I intend to refer to many of them in this series of articles.
Gestalt Law of Proximity: The brain tends to group items together that are close together in space ie. In the same Proximity.
In the picture above my brain tells me that there are 6 columns of 9 dots in one group.
Gestalt Law of Similarity: We tend to group objects with similar properties (color, shape, texture).
In the picture above my brain groups the black and gray dots.
Gestalt Law of Continuity: When something is introduced as a series the brain tends to perpetuate the series
Gestalt Law of Closure: We tend to complete incomplete objects
The table below applies all of the Gestalt laws above:
· The Gestalt Law of Continuity: The right aligned figures and the left aligned text are perceived as columns
· The Gestalt Law of Proximity: The region labels and figures for Scenario W6000 and Scenario W7000 are grouped by having some extra space between the columns.
· Gestalt Law of Closure: Although we have some space between the column quarter column headers and the figures we perceive them as one unit.
· Gestalt Law of Similarity: Formatting the negative numbers red makes them clearly stand out from positive numbers.