Using Graphical Data

Activity time: 15 Minutes

Types of media: Webpage


Unknown Author (Brunel University / LearnHigher)


An introduction to the effective use of graphical data


Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0

(This resource can be freely repurposed and reused)



Date Modified

Date Added

This information/resource was last updated in June 2021.

This post was originally added to LearnHigher on: January 15, 2012

About this resource

Sometimes words aren’t the most effective way to communicate. Using graphs, tables and charts can help your reader to get a clearer picture of your research findings and how they compare with other data. Using drawings, diagrams and photographs can clearly present information that would be difficult to explain in words.

This page includes advice on when and how to use graphical information.

  1. Common forms of graphical information
  2. When to use graphs, tables and charts
  3. Layout, labelling and referring to figures
  4. Using drawings, diagrams and photographs

Common forms of graphical information

Tables are useful when you need to present a quantity of numerical data in an accessible format and you need to show exact numbers. Table example
Line graphs are especially effective at showing trends (how data changes over time) and relationships (how two variables interact). Line graph example
Bar charts/graphs are good when you want to compare discrete items. The bars can be vertical or horizontal. Making them different colours can help the reader to differentiate each result. Bar chart example
Pie charts show the proportion of the whole that is taken by various parts. Pie chart example
Drawings and diagrams can be used to reinforce or supplement textual information, or where something is more clearly shown in diagrammatic form. Diagram example (by Eric Pierce)
Photographs can be useful as illustrations that help to explain what is being discussed in the text.

Photograph example

The key is to consider what is needed to do the job you need doing. It’s especially important with drawings, diagrams and photographs to always ask yourself whether they are necessary – what would happen if they weren’t there?

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When to use tables, graphs and charts

Graphical formats for data are used when they are a more useful way of conveying something about the information than text alone: when they ‘add value’ to the textual description of the data. The important thing is to use graphical information appropriately – not just because you think you ought to.

Consider carefully which is the best way to present your data. Read through the brief descriptions above and choose the format that is most appropriate for what you are trying to convey. It should never be necessary to present the same information in two different graphical formats.

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Layout, labelling and reference to

All graphs, charts, drawings, diagrams and photographs should be numbered consecutively as Figures according to where they come in the text (e.g. Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3 etc).

All tables should be numbered using a separate sequence (e.g. Table 1, Table 2 etc).

If your sections are numbered, you may number figures and tables in separate sequences that refer to the section number (e.g. in section 3 you would have, Figure 3.1, Figure 3.2 etc).

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Using drawings, diagrams and photographs

Complex processes and detailed descriptions can often be better represented visually in a diagram, drawing or photo. For example, a very technical manufacturing system could be explained using a flow diagram.

Make sure all your images are large enough, and of a high enough quality, to be read easily and that they are labelled clearly to explain what they show.

You will need to reference any diagrams and photos you use if they have been created by another person.


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