Charting Basics

Most patent research projects include charts and visulaizations which summarize your research.  In general, reports should be introduced with a summary chart, table, or other visualization.  In this article we explore some ideas to help you make your patent charts and visualizations clear, intuitive, easy to read, and uncluttered.

When to Use a Chart and When to Use a Table

Tables work best when there is a limited number of data points and each data element must be expressed precisely.  An example might be the summary data collected on a handful of important patents used in litigation, or that protect a particular product.

Charts are more useful when your message is about the shape of the data, such as a trend or a comparison.  In the chart below, it is not critical that the reader knows the specific number of patents.  The trend is what is important.  You can see that the US granted just under 200K patents per year until 2010, but then it jumped up to 250K and 300K+ in the past couple of years.  Users view the chart with a good grasp of the size of the breadbox.  The exact numbers are not as important as the scale and the trend.

When to Use a Chart and When to Use a Table

Keep Charts Simple

A simple chart that conveys information is always better than a complex one with fancy graphics, backgrounds, color pallets, etc.  Look at how Google and Apple use charts in their products.  Their charts are simple, yet they still tell the full story they want told.

Minimize the Use of Color

Colors can be helpful, but color for color's sake is never a good idea in your charts.  If there is no specific meaning to a color, then avoid using it.

In the chart below, colors are used for different data series, which is an appropriate use of color.  Color is used correctly here because it clarifies the chart and visually separates each patent series.  You wouldn't want to use a single color (or just black) for all of the patent series lines, but you also wouldn't want to use a different color for each of the grid lines.  Both would make it extremely difficult for the reader to understand the story you were trying to tell.

Minimize the use of color

Charts Should Stand by Themselves

Your charts should cover a complete thought and should not require a supporting paragraph in order for the reader to understand it.  Imagine if one of your charts was on the ground, and somebody picked it up with no other context but the chart itself.  Ask yourself, "Would this person know what this chart is about?"  It can be very useful to make use of the Subtitle field to provide the user with any clarifying information possibly required to interpret the chart.

Use appropriate:

  • Title
  • Subtitle
  • X-axis and Y-axis labels
  • Legend

The patent analysis chart below stands alone with no supporting text required.

Charts should stand by themselves

Make Easy to Read Charts

If your charts are too small, blurry, and not rendered with the ultimate output in mind, then you are not helping your reader.  

For example, if your final output is going to be a 50' wide projector screen at a conference, don't export your chart as a 200 pixel wide JPG.  Use the appropriate output type such as PDF or SVG, so your charts will scale beautifully no matter what size they are rendered.

PDF charts are vector based, and they can be imported into MS Word or PowerPoint.  PDFs provide the highest quality output no matter what their ultimate use.  Some applications, like this help management system, require raster files, such as JPG or PNG files, so I render them as PNG files with this output in mind.  SVG is a vector graphics format compatible with programs like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, but not compatible with Word or PowerPoint.  Use SVG only when you want a graphics designer to further modify your chart!

AcclaimIP provides raster export options in JPG or PNG formats.  JPG is an older lossy standard which often compresses text so that it is difficult to read.  The more modern PNG (Portable Network Graphics) tends to be a better choice, since it is lossless, renders text better, and supports transparency.  I even suggested to our developers that we don't offer JPGs, but I got vetoed because so many users just want to do things the old way and expect a JPG output option.  But you've read this help file, so you will use either PNGs or PDFs, right?

Example of a Bad Chart:

The chart below is squished and the headings outweigh the data.  It is too small for a PowerPoint presentation, and overall just doesn't look nice.

Make easy to read charts

Use the Correct Aspect Ratio for Your Output

You may want to change the aspect ratio, which is the proportional relationship between an image's width and height.  For example, if you are heading a page in a report about Google's patenting trends in China, you may want to display the graphic relatively wide, but also conserve vertical space by changing the image's aspect ratio.  Notice here that the y-axis label is shortened so that it would fit nicely.  In AcclaimIP, the aspect ratio of your output matches what you see on the screen, so you never have to guess what your output will look like.


Use the correct aspect ratio for your output

Minimize 3D and Blow Apart Effects

I actually love how AcclaimIP's 3D column chart looks, but the experts tell us to minimize their use since they don't communicate any additional information to the reader, and they add complexity to the visualization.  If you want to blow apart a slice of a pie, I suggest you only do one slice when your are making your point or conclusion.


Don't Vary Style Midway Through Your Report or Presentation

It can certainly be tedious for the analyst to create a report containing a bunch of charts with similar styles.  You may just want to change the background, since you may be bored with the existing one, but this is to your peril.  It looks sloppy to your reader to vary your style mid report.  My advice is to pick a style and stick with it, unless there is a compelling reason to switch charting styles.

Don't Mislead Your Readers with a Scaled Result

Notice how the chart on the right misleads the viewer.  The bar showing 6,000,000 is about a third the size fo the bar showing 7,066,000.  This sensationalizes their findings.  The previous day, Fox summarized a similar set of data with a chart of the correct scale.  AcclaimIP scales your charts in an unbiased fashion, but you can export the chart values and chart in Excel, so I thought I would mention it.


Don't mislead your readers with a scaled scale

Don't Overload Your Charts

Notice the chart below shows 50 different acquirers of IBM's patents.  It is too crowded, and virtually impossible to read.  For one thing, the numbers and names start to overlap when you try to cram too much information into one chart.  Ultimately, your reader won't remember any of it.

Don't Overload your charts

Even a wide aspect ratio won't save this chart.  There is just too much data for the user to consume here.  The example below shows the chart stretched out.  You have to admit, the example below and the example above might have different issues, but the one thing they have in common is that they are both difficult to really get anything useful out of.

A simpler approach, such as the chart below that only uses the top 10, is both easier to read and engages the reader better.

Don't Make Users Do Math!

Charts are more difficult to interpret if the viewer has to do math in their head.  Consider the two charts below that show Google's organic patenting activity over the past 10 years.  The first chart, the stacked bar chart, does a nice job showing the "whole," but at the same time, you have to do visual math to make complete sense of it.

Don't make users do math!

A better option is often a side-by-side bar chart.  The example below shows exactly the same data as the example chart above, but does not require any mathematical shenanigans to interpret it correctly.  

If you have more than about three series that you want to add to a single chart, you'll find that a line chart is easier to read and interpret for the user.  For two or three, side-by-side bar charts are appropriate.


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