There’s nothing like a bar charts or a line graph to perk up a PowerPoint presentation. The same goes for a utility bill. A colorful pie chart that shows a customer how their $40 monthly bill breaks down among service, taxes and fees and fuel is sure to catch her eye.
Charts, graphs and other visual representations make it easier for our brains to digest data and grasp complex information. They help us see how different factors relate to one another.
They can be used to great effect in utility company bills. An electric utility might use a bar chart to illustrate a customer’s residential electric use, month by month, comparing this year to last year. The water company might use a line chart to show how a dry spell causes water use to take a steep climb in the summer months.
No one likes bills, do they? And yet, an invoice that gives us additional information, in an easy-to-digest way, is a little more interesting. It also conveys that a company believes in sharing information and values good communication. Invoices are by their nature a bit dull; a graphic or even multiple graphics enliven a page. Just as a picture helps add information to a story, a good graphic adds interest and additional information to an invoice.
And, the graphic element doesn’t always have to be a chart. For example, a water company could print a water droplet graphic on each bill and print the number of gallons of water the customer had used that month inside the droplet.
Utility bills fluctuate. Charts and graphs make it easy for customers to notice the ups and downs. For example, by looking at a chart that shows average temperature and electric usage for each month, a customer would quickly realize that January’s bill has increased significantly because the average temperature that month was 20 degrees lower than December.
A water leak can go undetected for some time. So can a slow leak in a toilet. A chart or graph that shows a drastic leap in usage can tip off a homeowner to a problem with their pipes or plumbing. The same goes for other utilities. Changes in use sometimes signal service problems.
A chart or graph that shows a drastic rise in utility use might convince a customer to sign up for home inspections or other programs that utilities have developed to help customers improve energy efficiency and resource use.
The type of information being shared drives the choice of graphic. The three graphics most commonly used in utility bills are line graphs, bar charts and pie charts. Line graphs excel at showing how something — let’s say water use — changes over a period of time. Bar charts illustrate quantity or numeric value. A pie chart presents different parts of a whole. The pieces are different sizes based on how much of the whole they represent.
Good design principles are a key to the effectiveness of a chart or graph. Here are a few tips for better graphics.
Visually, it’s easier to see the difference between two contrasting colors — say orange and blue or green and red. Charts can also be done in one color, using gradations to distinguish each bar, for example, a bar that is a 10 percent screen of blue and a bar that is 80 percent screen. Gray and black highly contrast, but different shades of gray might be hard to differentiate.
Color can also communicate a mood or feeling. Warm colors like orange and red remind us of the sun and indicate warmth while cool colors, like blue, relay a feeling of coolness and calm.
The written descriptions or labels on a chart tell us what the bars or lines represent. Descriptions that are short and printed in easy-to-read typefaces help make the chart or graph easy to understand. Readers will appreciate a type size that large enough to be easily read. Horizontal labels are also a plus so that people don’t have to turn their heads to read them.
Dotted lines are sometimes used in graphs but they can be hard to follow. Solid lines in different colors are easier to distinguish.
Graphs and charts sometimes try to communicate too much. For example, a pie chart that’s divided into a dozen pieces or a line chart with 6 or 7 different lines is hard to visually absorb. Some experts recommend keeping a pie chart to 6 or fewer pieces and a line graph to four or fewer lines. Instead of packing a lot of different information into one graphic, many utilities present a series of different graphics to relay different information, such as a line graph charting energy use for this year compared to last; a bar chart showing energy use for the month of June for the last 10 years and a pie chart showing the breakdown of what percentage of a home’s energy is being used by lighting, heating/air, appliances, computers and water heating.
If you’d like to know more about how to make your utility’s bills more engaging and informative by adding charts, graphs and other visual representations, give us a call. We handle the design, printing and mailing of utility bills for dozens of utility companies. We always look for ways to help these clients improve outcomes–to speed up customer payments, increase rates of payment and improve communication through invoices that are more visually appealing and interesting as well as easier to understand.
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