The importance of only one thought for your data graphic


“This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” - Neil Armstrong 

On May 25, 1961, President John F Kennedy gave his famous speech that set the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

It’s amazing what that vision set in motion. NASA focused step by step to put all the pieces in place that would allow a man to go to the moon. They had to overcome many obstacles, such as how to dock two spacecraft traveling hundreds of miles per hour. They had to learn to keep humans safe and healthy in space for days. They had to learn to maintain a trajectory towards the moon, 238,900 miles from the earth. These were just a few of the challenges.

But due to that singular focus, everything NASA did had a purpose that led to meeting President Kennedy’s challenge

And due to that singular focus, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. 

Our data graphics can benefit from a singular focus, too. That singular focus comes through having one thought for you data graphic.

One thought is focusing on a single idea

The idea is clear, focused, and has a particular message. A big mistake of many data graphics is not having that point of view. Let’s look at an example based on President Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon:

No point of view: Putting a man on the moon

Point of view: How NASA overcame three obstacles to put Neil Armstrong on the moon in eight years

One thought: Overcoming obstacles

Once you have a clear single thought, the data becomes more engaging and piques a reader’s curiosity. Keeping everything focused on your one thought helps the reader by not confusing or overwhelming them with too much information. 

But does one thought mean only having a single graph or map?

Absolutely not. In fact, having more than one graphic helps a reader understand your message from multiple points of view. 

How the one thought affects the graphics is to keep them all focused on explaining your message. For the Man on the Moon example, you could have a graphic of the first docking of two spacecraft, a graph that shows increasing time in space, and a chart of the trajectories and corrections of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11. They are different, but they all focus on explaining the one Thought of overcoming obstacles.

So, how do you make sure the one thought runs through your data graphic? 

A good way I’ve found is to make sure each and every title, header, and caption has the words of your message … 

  • Overcoming the obstacle of docking two spacecraft in space
  • Overcoming the obstacle of keeping humans healthy and safe in space
  • Overcoming the obstacle of keeping the spacecraft on course to the moon

And on and on.

But throughout this process, you’ll be tempted to add other information you feel is relevant, but doesn’t add to the one thought

Be warned that adding that relevant information will make your graphic presentation confusing and distracting. The reader will wonder how it fits into your message. It will also take up space that could be better used to dig deeper into your message. 

Instead of adding that relevant information, keep your focus on your message and having everything point to that one thought. Other information can go into other data graphics and tell other data stories.

By creating that one thought in your graphic, you develop the same singular focus that put humans on the moon

Everything will be put in to support your message, and everything will lead the reader to a complete understanding of your message. 

To summarize …

  • Having only one thought in your data graphic helps the reader understand and remember what you’re communicating.
  • The one thought expresses a single idea that the data graphic will highlight. It should be boiled down into just a few words.
  • Put the one thought in every title, header, caption while working on the data graphic so that the one thought runs throughout the graphic.
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