NOTE: This is the second post in our Windward series on creating beautiful reports. Missed the first one? Read it here.
“Beautiful” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think about including tables in a report. They’re great for displaying data, but let’s face it: they aren’t in the same class as images or other more exciting visual elements.
But don’t overlook them. By paying attention to the following tips, you can design beautiful report tables that are attractive and enhance the overall look of that key report or document you’ve worked so hard to create.
Tables Versus Charts
Before you read this post any further, you have a key decision to make: whether to use a table or a chart to display the information. You can usually arrive at that decision quickly by asking yourself one question.
Am I conveying many individual data points, or am I trying to show an overall trend instead?
If it’s important that the report reader see the individual data points, go with a table. If not, you’ll likely want a chart.
For example, say you’re designing an invoice. In this case, you’d want a table – a list of each item with its price, quantity, etc. Report viewers can then go right to a specific line item they’re interested in or jump to the total amount.
On the other hand, say you’re building a graphic for a sales team that shows categories a particular customer is buying. In this case, you’d generate a chart showing the most purchased category, the next most purchased, and so on.
Here we’ve created a basic table of employees:
Now we have a functional table with the desired information, but no one would call it beautiful. Let’s walk through how to make it easier on the eyes.
NOTE: We generated the table we’ll be using as an example throughout this post with the Microsoft® add-in Windward AutoTag. The design tools we use below are all available in the Microsoft Word ribbon.
Optimal Cell, Row and Column Dimensions
Okay, that was a trick subhead. There are no “optimal” dimensions.
As much as we’d love to give you a formula for calculating the height and width of each cell, column and/or row, there is none. It all depends upon the data you’re including in the table. Generally the cell with the most content will determine the height and width of the adjacent cells.
There are a couple general guidelines, however.
- The larger the cell contents, the more space you’ll want between rows. As we discussed in our previous post, viewers tend to want space between lines of text to be slightly larger than the font of the text. So if the text is, say 11 points, you’ll want at least 13 points from one horizontal line to the next. And with tables, you also need to account for the size of the cell borders.
- Let the program you’re using do as much of the work as possible. If you can allow that table-creation tool to automatically set the dimensions according to the cell content, you lessen the risk of data that’s squished into too small an area or lost in a sea of blank space.
And the most important guideline: Remember to view the output and then try a few adjustments. Trial and error is often the best way to determine optimal table dimensions.
Justifying Data in Rows and Columns
Should your data be aligned to the left in a cell? The right? The center? The top? The bottom?
In general, left-justified text is the most natural for the reader. It allows you to quickly scan a table and grasp the information the table contains. Center-justified text should be used sparingly, perhaps for elements you want to stand out from the rest, such as column headers and subheads.
One major exception to this rule is when the data is currency or other numbers. In this case, you’ll likely want to right justify the content so that decimal points or base digits line up vertically in each cell, making it easy for the reader to scan and compare data.
Also, don’t forget to consider how text is aligned vertically within a cell. Center-justified text typically is the easiest to read. The major exception here is when each cell in a row contains a significant difference in the amount of information; for example, the first three cells contain one line each and the third cell has a lengthier description. In this case, top-justified text tends to be the most readable.
Line after line of black and white data in a table can wear down the reader, so show a little mercy by adding a few visual elements.
One common technique is to add background color to your chart. Choose two complementary colors, light enough so they don’t interfere with the text readability, and alternate colors for each row. You can add a third color to the title row of your table.
You can also use color to help best represent the data. For instance, if a chart contains numbers, you can display negative numbers in red. Or a table of worldwide employees might use various background colors to indicate regions.
Borders and Subheads
Cell borders are another way to add visual interest. This is another area where there are no hard and fast rules, so experiment with the size of borders both horizontally and vertically.
Also, don’t be afraid of using subheads within a table. If a table contains a large amount of data that you can sort easily into logical groups, use subheads to allow readers to quickly jump from group to group.
A word of caution when it comes to visual interest. You don’t want the enhancements to interfere with the purpose of the table: displaying information so that it’s easy for the reader to grasp.
This means avoid any funky shadows, shapes, textures, etc. that detract from the look of the table. The visual elements should make the table easier to read, not more difficult.
TIP: w3Schools.com has a great tutorial page showing how you can improve an HTML table with CSS.
Ordering Data in a Table
Lastly, be sure to give some consideration to the data when determining how to organize it in a table. There are almost as many ways to order data as there are tables, but here are a few examples to help you think about what makes the most logical sense. This may not add to the aesthetic beauty of the report, but it can make the report significantly more readable. And readable = beautiful.
Is the data showing change over time? If so, your readers are most likely interested in seeing the most recent data first, so order your table thus.
Will a reader want to search for a particular entry? Then consider organizing the table alphabetically or by date. And if the answer is alphabetical, think about placing the appropriate column first. For example, although we call someone by their first name first and last name last, we typically search by last name, so place that column first.
Does that table contain data showing various quantities for comparison purposes? If so, you may want to sort the columns in ascending or descending order.
The Whole Beautiful Report Series
Also, we want to thank your for reading this series on how to design beautiful reports. We have released the entire series as a free e-book for you to download, share and refer to in the future.
Remember, you can receive the series in your email inbox by subscribing to our company blog here:
Author: Heidi V. Anderson
Heidi has been writing professionally about computers, technology and the Internet for more than 20 years. She lives in Vermont where she taps her maple trees for syrup and most of the year wishes it was just a little bit warmer out.
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