How To Make Numbers Interesting

If your content involves numerical facts and data, there are ways to make it more compelling. You can design the number display so it has visual impact and you can accentuate the real point of the data so it is intriguing.

Create Visual Impact

In terms of visual interest, consider these approaches that are illustrated below: emphasize specific numbers, make the numbers concrete, transform numbers into a metaphor, and combine numbers with a conventional symbol.

Make it Meaningful

In terms of conceptual interest, it’s valuable to examine your purpose for using numerical facts. Does the audience need to remember specific numbers? Are you using them to persuade? Most likely, you’re using statistics and data to make a point. When you know the purpose, you can act to make the numbers meaningful.

John Tukey, statistician and author, wrote that “Much of what we want to know about the world is naturally expressed as phenomena, as potentially interesting things that can be described in non-numerical words.” He argued that it is the phenomena derived from the numbers that are of most interest to people.

So use numbers to help learners think about the events that underlie them. People are most interested in making comparisons, understanding relationships, seeing trends and finding patterns. This will lead to the recognition of phenomena.

For example, when you see a bar graph that illustrates the average house size in a few countries around the world, you probably won’t remember the square footage in each location. Through an effective graph, however, you are more likely to remember the relationship of how home size in your country compares with others.

To add visual or conceptual interest, consider some of the approaches shown here.

Single Out Each Number

Let’s start with a simple fix. Did you ever see a slide, brochure or magazine pull quote that displayed a very large number? That’s one simple technique you can use if the number itself is very important and you want to emphasize it. This is easy to implement and yet it’s visually appealing.

The example below, from my book Visual Language For Designers, shows how numbers were represented in a college brochure. When using this design approach for eLearning or for a presentation, you may want to display one statistic at at time.

Make Numbers Concrete

When we first learn mathematical concepts, we understand them by manipulating concrete objects. This capacity for understanding through the senses sticks with us for life. It’s basic to how we learn about the world. Whenever you can transform statistics or data from something abstract to something a learner can see or touch, you make it easier to comprehend and easier to remember. And probably because of this, it makes numbers more compelling.

This is easy to accomplish when you want to visualize percentages. All you need is 100 circles. Then color the corresponding number of circles to literally show what the percentage represents.


Transform Numbers with Pictograms

Another way to make statistics concrete is to display quantity using a pictogram. Pictograms are simplified or iconic graphics that resemble an object.

If your statistics are about people, then you would use a simple person icon. After choosing your pictogram, determine the unit of measurement it will signify and then repeat it accordingly. For the coffee statistics below, the pictogram is a to-go coffee cup and each cup equals, well, one cup.

Make Comparisons

Our brains are more suited for making comparisons than for remembering a specific number. In fact, comparisons are often the core of one’s interest in numbers. As long as a comparison has a common frame of reference, it should work to express your message. This means compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

Most people are used to making comparisons with bar charts. In the example shown here from the BBC, home space in six countries (expressed in square meters) is displayed as set of rectangles. Not only does this allow for easy comparison, but it reflects the objects being compared (houses are usually rectangular), helping to make the numbers concrete.

See original image on BBC site (scroll down when you get there).

Create a Metaphor

Can your statistics or data be associated with a familiar object? Even if the association isn’t perfect, this approach can go a long way to making things interesting. Think of the way the United Way uses a thermometer to indicate how close they are to reaching their fund-raising goal.

Similarly, I’ve used a gas gauge to show how far we’ve come to reaching my fictitious goal for a monument to instructional designers. (Any architects out there?)

Use Symbols

When you combine statistics with symbols, you’re adding a second channel to your message. In addition to communicating a statistic, you’re conveying it’s broader meaning.

The triangle-shaped road sign indicates a warning or important information. You can also find this symbol in computer system messages when a problem occurs. Delivering a statistic on this symbol signals a warning—that the information is a problem that needs to be tackled.

You probably have some other approaches to displaying numbers. Please share your ideas in the Comments section below.


Tuckey, John. Data-Based Graphics: Visual Display in the Decades to Come. Statistical Science, Vol. 5, No. 3, August 1990.

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  1. steven loomis says

    Hi Connie,
    I like to use numbers as a main theme in my courses—here I’ll take a significant number from the content and make a counter out of it. This counter helps illustrates the importance of the number and allows for some interesting course designs. Some examples of this are described in the following post:

  2. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Steven,
    It’s so great to see other examples. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation and for the link, which leads to more links!

  3. Raj says

    Thanks for a great article. How would you use your concept when the topic involves analyzing price charts such Stock Prices or Forex? In this instance, the visualization is the chart itself, but the interpretation involves maths.


  4. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Raj,
    I really can’t say without seeing the visual, but what comes to mind are: call-outs pointing to certain things you want to explain, highlights, and magnifying specific areas of the chart as you provide an explanation. See this article for making a magnification graphic.

  5. Tonya Riney says

    Hey Connie,

    Thanks for this! Excellent post, very informative, and I will honor you with the “sincerest form of flattery” every chance I get! :)




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