Dashboard Layout and Design

Kelly Martin
on October 18, 2013

This is the third post in a series of guest blog entries by Tableau Public authors for Design Month. Kelly Martin is a Tableau Zen Master and the brains behind Viz Candy. At TCC13, she competed in the 3rd Annual Iron Viz competition.

You’ve connected to your data – analyzed the heck out of it - made 67 charts – now what? How do you get all that information into a dashboard? Making a dashboard in Tableau can be so technically easy (just drag and drop), but then you discover that it can also be very difficult to make a meaningful dashboard. Tableau’s ease of use does a lot of the work for you, but there are many interconnected pieces and decisions that go into a well-designed dashboard.

To begin with, the layout of your dashboard is dependent on what its purpose is, who will be using it and how they will be using it. This basic table illustrates just a few of the possible combinations of factors that need to be considered when building your dashboard. Juice Analytics provides a great guide for dashboard design that details requirements for interactive dashboards.

Bad dashboards are cases where good information is being ignored because the user is being confused or abused. This is where beauty comes in. Not pretty, not cool, but beautiful. Beauty is meaningful design. There’s a lot of debate out there regarding beauty over substance, but for me, a dashboard isn’t beautiful because it’s cool looking or colorful; it’s beautiful if it is designed in a way that optimizes the users ability to take in the information. Are there hard fast rules to follow? Do this, then this, then this…? Not really. It’s a combination of best practices and creativity, of laying out your story and managing the interplay between simplicity, clarity and efficiency.


When the user is presented with the dashboard it should be easily understood at a glance and not overwhelm. Think of the first time you were presented with a Rubik’s Cube. Its simple design is not off putting even though it is a complex puzzle. Each piece should have a good reason for being on the dashboard.

This operational dashboard has a lot of information (16 views) on it and yet it doesn’t overwhelm. The grid or columnar layout is particularly useful for exploratory and scorecard dashboards that display a lot of measures and provide the user with many filter options. To maintain simplicity there is only one font type (Arial), a limited color palette, no data labels or mark shapes, and the filters are arranged in a column. The detailed information is available to the user in the tool-tip.


Our minds seek harmony and balance. A dashboard should be laid out in a balanced way. For example, the upper left corner is where our minds think ‘this is important’ or ‘start here’. The most important items should have prominence. The order, sizing and grouping of elements goes from overview (big picture) to detail.

While grid or columnar presentations are most logical and easy to balance, freeform dashboards can be much better for storytelling. The golden ratio is most helpful in achieving balance on this kind of dashboard. Use it as a general guide. You don’t need to rigidly calculate the size of each view or place them exactly according the dimensions of the golden ratio.

This freeform dashboard presents much more detailed information at a glance, but the large map lets users know where to start and the detailed information is clutter free and not overwhelming.


No one gets excited when presented with a page of numbers in a meeting. Usually it’s met with dread or fear. We’ve all experienced the feeling of ‘this means work, I’m going to need caffeine, lots and lots of caffeine’. The same reaction can happen with an overwhelming dashboard. And while it might be possible to walk a team through the dashboard in a meeting, it’s pretty likely that very few will open it or use it on their own if they think it’s going to require work or intense concentration. Aim for minimal complexity and maximum ease of use. I particularly like the hover filter action in Tableau. It’s kind of trick. People are likely to accidentally filter or filter without having to make a decision while they are getting the hang of the dashboard.

This dashboard has a fairly busy looking rank chart as the prominent piece of information. To make it easier to use, there is only one hover filter and two columns of information. The second column displays the text results from the chart making it easy for the user to instantly read the information. The bubble chart presents at a glance results through the use of color and size. Further down, the reader can see more detailed information, which also uses color to highlight negative values.

Balancing simplicity, clarity and efficiency when building a dashboard is not an easy task and often requires many iterations. Take a look at the NYT design process at Charts n Things. This is where an editor is invaluable. I have a few that will review for me, but one that I can count on to attack my dashboards. She tries to break them and she lets me know what isn’t working or what didn’t make sense. And yes, sometimes I do things for design that are not necessarily best practices for displays of analysis. I have added a green chart for no good reason other than it provided balance to the other colors on the dashboard.

The web is full of bad dashboards. Google "dashboard" images. Now, don’t ever do that again. I would estimate that 99.9% of those pictures are from vendors selling bad design or other people creating dashboards based on vendor’s bad design. If you want to learn about dashboard design I’d recommend starting with the writings of Stephen Few and Alberto Cairo. Stephen and Alberto have taught me to pay attention to not only the analysis, but the principles of perception and storytelling. Tableau Public authors (too many to mention here) and Web designers are also a great source inspiration, particularly for dashboard design and interactivity.

Here are a few helpful don’ts from Mr. Few:

  • Positioning content in places that don’t fit its importance
  • Positioning content in places that fail to support its use
  • Including items that serve no useful purpose
  • Sizing content larger than it deserves
  • Separating content excessively
  • Visually featuring content and other items more than they deserve
  • Failing to visually link contents and other items that are related
  • Visually suggesting links between contents that are not related
  • Enforcing a rigid symmetrical grid

My last bit of advice for designing beautiful dashboards? Do something creative. Organize your books by color, take an online drawing class, doodle, sing, or daydream. Allow yourself to be playful and even a little goofy. Click here to view the Dashboard Design Layout workbook.