Designing Dashboards: Sending Your Style Vibe

OK I admit it, I’m a font geek.If I visit a website with a gross font, I don’t go back. It’s true. Want me to adore you?  Send me an email in my favorite font – it will impress me. It communicates your style vibe and if we are on the same wavelength, then you must be adorable!!

Style is what makes users want to look at your dashboard or even presentation. You want the dashboard to be functional but also attractive. The font selection is one way that you communicate that vibe style. Let’s take a tour through some fonts, their meanings and their application.

Is Your Dashboard Sending a Bad Vibe?

There are hundreds of font choices. Fonts can be assigned to four broad categories: serif, sans serif, script, and decorative. A serif font has a small line on the ends. Sans-serif means the line is not there. Compare the examples below and notice that the “b” has a serif at the top and bottom of its line. Script looks like cursive handwriting. Decorative are those fonts that have a fun element. Notice that script and decorative cross the boundaries between serif and not serif.

Changing the Dashboard Readability

Many studies have been conducted on fonts and readability. The conclusion is serif fonts are easier to read as text because of the serifs.The serif on the letters guides the eye across the page. [Reference: Best fonts to use online] Other considerations for readability are the font size and width. This chart shows 8 different fonts with the same phrase. It helps you understand how much space each font requires.

Arial Narrow (bottom left) is considered one of the worse fonts. It’s narrow size makes it difficult for readers to see the difference between a small I and a small L (look at readability in each example).  The lack of serifs compounds the problem. The font may not use much space but it also doesn’t help the reader. In other words – it threatens your reader’s ability to consume your message. Legibility counts as well!

Many designers use a sans-serif font for headings and serif for body type. In a dashboard, there is not a lot of space. You want your data visualizations to be the star not the headings. So these rules may be more applicable to large bodies of text versus the headings that you have in a web report. If space is a consideration, then plan the font accordingly.

Consider the Subtle Messages

Look at the following fonts and consider the subtle message each is providing.Consider how each of these fonts would appear on a dashboard and how it might change your message. For instance, do you really want Comic Sans to show your dismal sales figures? It might give an impression of “the company is sinking and the report builder finds that comical!”

Realize that even if you like a font – it may not be the correct choice for the report. In general, avoid the script and decorative fonts. These fonts are more difficult to read. However, like all choices in design – it is situational. Perhaps you are reporting about weddings or Halloween sales and the font  adds that little extra umph. If your font choice only adds decoration without legibility – you might be in trouble.

Changing the Font in SAS Visual Analytics

You can easily change the overall report font in SAS Visual Analytics. From the overall Style menu, you can change the theme, some colors, and font. To see the overall Style menu, click a report, open the Style menu, and select the top choice from the drop-down. The overall Style menu appears. You can select the new font in the Font drop-down menu.

There are some sample reports available in SAS Visual Analytics 7.3. Let’s see how the fonts change the readability and overall design style.  I chose the Warranty Analysis Sample because it had a page with a tag cloud. The tag cloud shows the font more clearly. For each sample below, I select a new font from the Font drop-down.  Note: when you change the font, it takes the report about a minute to refresh the view so it may appear nothing is happening at first.

Using the Sans-Serif Fonts

The default font for the SAS Snow theme is Arial. It’s a classic default font based on Helvetica – considered by many font designers to be the one font that rules them all. It’s simple, legible and oh-so elegant.  [Note that you can click on any of these images to see a larger view.]

Here’s a similar sans-serif font that is called Verdana. Designers like this font because it’s a little more chunky and considered easier more legible.Verdana was designed specifically for screens and is considered web-safe. It’s a good choice and most computers have it available.

This font is called Avenir Next LT Wide on my computer – it’s similar to a famous font called Avant Garde.  It’s wider than Arial. It was based on a magazine called Avant Garde.  Notice how much more space it requires – but it has a smooth elegance to it.  The font geek in me adores this font.

Using the Serif Fonts

Of all the fonts available, Courier is the one I like the least. It’s clunky, looks like a typewriter … and just yuck. Don’t use this font – it’s beyond ugly … more like fugly.

In contrast, here’s a serif font called Palatino that I find beautiful. It doesn’t use much space and is easy on the eye. When italicized this font almost appears as a script – so use wisely.

Other Font Choices

Here’s some other choices … such as the dreaded Comic Sans. Many people like it because it’s like handwriting so it feels casual, but it makes me think of a comic book.  I really don’t want the Archie gang talking about my corporate statistics.

And just for fun … here’s one that is super tiny called BrowalliaUPC. You can read the tag cloud but not the captions. Notice that it’s so compact, SAS Visual Analytics tried to plot the dates on the large horizontal chart. It just makes a mess.

Think about the style vibe you want to communicate with your SAS Visual Analytics dashboard and then try a few!

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