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5 Tips for meaningful and understandable graphs

These tips are based upon the IBCS-standards. The International Business Communication Standards (IBCS) are practical proposals for the design of business communication published for free use under a Creative-Commons-Lizenz (CC BY-SA). In most cases, applying IBCS means the proper conceptual, perceptual and semantic design of charts and tables.

One easy rule before we start is easy to remain: "Things that mean the same thing have to look the same." The opposite also applies: "If things do not mean the same thing, they should not look the same."

With this in mind let's look at the 5 most important rules to create meaningful reports.

1. Unify the titles of pages, charts, and tables

Every journalist will tell you that when you try to capture attention, it's all about the title. You need to be clear about what you are trying to communicate with your chart.

Here is the recommended approach:


This could be your company, a division, country, or store name.

Measure with Units

The measure is the quantity you are showing - your profit, loss statement, net sales, etc. so it could be dollars of revenue or something else.

​Time period

End the title with the period for which you are showing data - January, 2021, etc.

2. Present time series with horizontal axes

This recommendation applies to 95% of all charts. We distinguish between two different types of series: time and structure. Time series means months, years, quarters, days and other time data. You should always put time series on the horizontal axis. On the other hand, put structural comparison, like cities or locations, countries, projects or types of revenue on the vertical axis.

3. Identify scenarios by fill patterns

Dashboarding is all about comparisons. Let's say we are working with a comparison of plan versus actual with a forecast included. In this case, we use a solid fill with actual values, an outline with the plan and a hatched pattern for the forecast.

4. Highlight variances with green and red

As you see, IBCS recommendations call for simple charts in black white. This is because the IBCS philosophy is that colors should be reserved for more important things. Variances, for example.

The approach here is as straightforward as possible. While the color red denotes negative variances, green denotes positive variances. Also, keep in mind that a negative variance is not necessarily a negative number. For example, an increase in costs is a positive value that is negative variance.

5. Use highlighting to get your message across

When creating dashboards, you need to highlight the important things to get your message across.

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