Publishing graphs to present a true and fair view

Graphs are designed to help readers understand what’s going on at a glance. They serve a variety of purposes in reports, statistics and presentations. In a report they illustrate what’s being talked about. In statistics they underscore the details, and in presentations they’re used as a simple and coherent way of getting complex information across. The problem is that you often come across graphs that are inappropriate or even wrong.

The test is quick and easy: Enter the term “2016 annual report” (or “Geschäftsbericht 2016”) in your search engine, download one of the many PDFs that are listed, look through it for graphics, and read the accompanying paragraph of text. The findings are sobering. The publicly accessible annual report of a large cooperative in Switzerland includes the following chart:

At first glance everything seems in order. Net proceeds from sales of goods and services and gross profit are increasing, and are presented graphically. Dark blue is used to indicate the year under review. There’s a brief text introducing the graphs and explaining how the result came about.

Only a closer look through the lens of the International Business Communication Standards (IBCS) reveals that the graphics need correcting. They fail to present the facts accurately in various respects.

  • The figures shown above the bars in the right-hand chart indicate a 19.51% increase in gross profit since 2012. The bars themselves, however, show an increase of around 137%. You can prove this optical misrepresentation by measuring the bars: while CHF 99.4 million in 2012 are represented with 2.4 cm, CHF 118.8 million in 2016 take up a whole 5.7 cm.
  • The scales for the graphs for net proceeds and gross profits aren’t identical.
  • On neither graph does the y-axis begin at zero.

Correcting the charts in accordance with IBCS, a completely different picture emerges.

In these examples the representation errors have been corrected. The following year can likewise be represented in accordance with IBCS (a white bar with a black frame). A dividing line gives a clear visual indication that the future development has to be differentiated from current or previous developments. The correct relationships are clearly visible.

Essentially IBCS requires that the true and fair view principle also be applied to business graphics. This means that colours, symbols and other graphical elements must have a meaning. The representation must be formally correct so that the reader does not draw any wrong conclusions.

IBCS defines a visual language and enables appropriate visual and verbal communication. It also ensures that the same facts are presented uniformly all over the world. For example, the prior year is always grey, the current year black, and forecasts hatched or shaded.

We’d be glad to show you how to design business graphics correctly for meaningful communication.

Contact Us

Michael Gniffke
Leader Business Software Integration, PwC Switzerland
+41 58 792 47 74