People interpret symbols as pictures, not words. That makes symbols, like $, more instantly recognized and understood than words, like dollar.

Researchers out of University of Waterloo recently published a set of studies showing that symbols are better remembered than words. (A resource I found via this article.) Do you want your audience trying to remember whether you sold 98 boxes of Thin Mints or 98% of the boxes of Thin Mints? I don’t want any part of that confusion.

Let’s get clear and use symbols.

The researchers note that your audience has to be familiar with the symbols you choose. Don’t be like whoever invented the icons for laundry. I will never understand these.

You’ll want symbols that are everyday for your particular audience.

This, 100%, has implications for your data visualization.

Use % instead of “percent.”

Sally Veeder (may she rest in peace) and I used to argue about this one regularly. She was the assistant director of my university department, the second set of eyes on every single report, and the final judger of anything grammatical. She’d strike out my %s and replace them with “percent” every single time.

I wish I was a better person than this, but here I am, saying “Told ya so.”

Rather than this:

Do this:

See how the % version is much more instantly recognizable? And, as it turns out, memorable.

Use $ and M instead of “dollars in millions.”

You’re smart and you’ve got it from here but I’ll just show one more example because I see this one in so many of my clients, before we start work together.

Rather than this:

Do this:

Your audience is looking at the big picture first, only getting into the details later, if ever. When it comes to the text, we read the largest text first and the smallest text last. (Impress people at your next party with the term “visual hierarchy.”)

Have you seen this?

That’s how visual hierarchy works.

Apply this same idea to the text in your graph. If your tiny gray subtitle is where you’re telling people that the chart’s units are dollars in millions, it’s going to take your audience some effort to get to that pretty important detail.

Don’t bury the story. Use symbols to shortcut your communication.

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