The Luxury of Less

I often find myself torn between wanting to get as much useful information as possible onto a single page of the reports and dashboards we design and build, and my love of white space, or “The Luxury of Less.” In a page lay-out, white space (also called “negative space”) is the portion of a page deliberately left unmarked. When well chosen and placed, it is a key contributor to attractive, effective design. Done poorly, it can make a page appear incomplete or even pretentiously minimal.

Consider the following example of the potential power of white space, illustrated by Edward Tufte’s redesign of a table of cancer survival statistics.

Original Table:

Source: Hermann Brenner, "Long-term survival rates of cancer patient[s] achieved by the end of the 20th century; a period analysis," The Lancet, 360 (October 12, 2002), 1131-1135.

Source: Hermann Brenner, “Long-term survival rates of cancer patient[s] achieved by the end of the 20th century; a period analysis,” The Lancet, 360 (October 12, 2002), 1131-1135.

Tufte First Iteration Table Redesign:

Second Table-Graph Iteration:

The original table, which is similar to the ones we are accustomed to seeing in scientific publications, is ordered by body system and is perfectly adequate for the look-up and comparison of values, including details about the Standard Error (SE) of each value-that is, it serves its purpose. But could it be improved?

Tufte’s first redesign highlights a particular (and newly featured) aspect of the data: five-year survival rates by type of cancer. Notice how each row in this re-done table has a bit more white space: heavy black lines framing the titles and column-headings, and parentheses around the standard errors, have been removed, giving some visual respite and making the figures more legible. The re-categorization of the data also makes a trend it illustrates somewhat easier to spot (take a minute to look at the information in the first column and follow it across; you’ll see it). The entire table looks and feels cleaner, and especially for research publications that require reporting and display of all relevant statistics, this table redesign works very well.

The third table-graphic-a hybrid of the two forms-provides yet another view, and a different data-visualization lesson. It presents the viewer with a clear picture of survival time gradients, illustrating the slope of survival rates for each type of cancer. In this last table-graphic, there is an even greater use of white space, and every visual element contributes directly to understanding-simply, elegantly, clearly. The use of space coupled with a line to show the slope of change leaves no doubt about the story in the data.

Although I see no compelling reason why a view like this couldn’t be used in a research publication (adding back in the standard errors), this is of course wishful thinking on my part: it simply won’t happen any time soon. What isn’t wishful thinking, however, is that we have immediate opportunities to use these techniques to build the tables and other displays we create for our clients, supervisors, and colleagues. We can most certainly use them to simplify and clarify information for patients and the general public, too.

Bottom line? Tufte reminds us yet again of the power of simplicity, and that showing less often reveals so much more.

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