Table Design Tips for Presentations
Presentation table design isn’t the most exciting topic in the world. But it’s actually super important and one of the weakest points I see in a lot of presentations, so let’s dive in!
The world would be a better place if we didn’t need tables to display information. Why? Tables inherently contain a lot of information (typically more information than we can take in during a presentation).
But alas, sometimes the good ol’ table is still the most reliable way to convey a data. Here are some tips for cleaning up your table designs to make them as effective as possible.
Take a look at the table above…I hope it’s obvious to everyone reading that this table should NEVER be included in a presentation as is. Tables like this have their place, either on a website (where the information is sortable and clickable) or in reference materials. But never in presentations!
Before we talk about table design tips for presentations, let’s talk about why we might use tables.
We use presentation tables to allow the evidence to make our argument for us.
If it’s not immediately clear WHY a table is in your presentation it’s not doing its job. So how do we take a complicated table, like the one above, and turn it into something that conveys powerful, persuasive data?
TABLE DESIGN TIPS
1. Reduce the information to only what’s necessary
There seems to be this tendency to just throw our reference tables into presentations, literally including every possible row and column of data about a topic. We’ve all seen these slides (like the ones featured above). We include tables in our presentations to use data to convey a message. It’s our job to weed out the clutter and help the message standout.
Take a look at your table – do you really need all those rows? All those columns?
2. Kill the effects & use the white space
If you read my blog you know how I feel about special effects in design. Drop shadows, gradients, unnecessary colors, extraneous borders…kill them all. Flat Design forever! Seriously though, you’ll be surprised at how quickly clearing out the effects will make the data on a table stand out.
Zebra striping (alternating the shading on rows) can be an effective way to present a reference table because there are dozens (if not more) rows. But your presentation table should NOT have so many rows that it’s not readable. When you use zebra striping you’re denying yourself the opportunity to create emphasis where it counts.
Instead, kill the zebra stripes and save that color to highlight the most purposeful information in the table (the real reason that you’re including it in your deck at all).
White space is a designer’s best friend. Even if you aren’t a designer white space will take you out and show you a good time. Don’t put a crowded table in your presentation – you know the ones I’m talking about, where the text butts right up against the cells
Instead, use white space to give the viewer’s eyes a break. This will much more effectively emphasize the right information.
3. Clean up the Numbers
Your table is all about the numbers and they deserve your attention. It’s so easy to just drop the numbers in the table and forget about them…but numbers are the vehicle for driving our message home. It’s time we sat up and paid a little more attention to them.
Numbers are universally read from the left to the right. Longer numbers are bigger numbers (ignoring the decimal point). It’s our job as presentation designers to help people quickly recognize which numbers are larger.
There are two super easy ways to help achieve this:
a) Use comma separators so that the reader can quickly parse the number:
1243453232 vs. 1,243,453,232
1243453232 vs. 1,243,453,232
Which of these two numbers is easier to read?
b) Round! How about if we simplify it even further by rounding the numbers (how often do we need to know numbers down to the ones digit?)
1,243,453,232 vs. 1.2M
1,243,453,232 vs. 1.2M
These two simple tricks to dealing with numbers (and not just in tables – these principles should be applied anytime you use numbers in your presentation) will make them much more readable, help the viewer internalize them and actually begin to think about them critically and remember them.
A word of caution – if you’re using the numbers to calculate percentage changes or draw other similar conclusions, make sure you round AFTER you’ve done the math. You can really skew your data by rounding beforehand and no one wants misleading data.
TABLE DESIGN RESOURCES
If you’re interested in learning more about Table Design there are a lot of great resources to check out:
Presenting Data Effectively: How to Communication Your Message Effectively by Ed Swires-Hennessy
Published in Oct 2014, this book gives you a very nuts and bolts approach to cleaning up your table designs. Swires meticulously walks you through best practices that he’s accumulated over a long career as a government statistician in the UK. If table design isn’t your thing this will be a little bit of a dry read, but it’s a great reference tome on tables.
Each chapter is full of Principles, e.g. “Principle 2.5 Put into columns the categories of the data that you want the user to compare.”
I recommend using it as a reference as you’re working with actual tables so that you can immediately begin to apply his principles. This more hands-on approach will allow you to see the effect of his recommendations (even though he provides examples it’s hard to internalize tables that aren’t your own).
“Clear Off the Table: Remove to Improve: The Data Tables Edition,” by Joey Chedarchuk
If you’re more of a visual learner check out Cherdarchuk’s great slide deck on table clean up (embedded below via SpeakerDeck.com). In ~50 slides he’ll quickly walk you through the principles of great table design and with each new slide transition will put the principles into action before your eyes. It’s a super effective way to see the difference a few minor changes will make to the effectiveness of your tables. Here’s the slideshow:
Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:En.wp_Featured_Article_Candidates_target_promotion_rates_table.png