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How Bain & Co. builds beautiful charts

by | Nov 3, 2021

Bain builds charts that are eye-catching and persuasive, using a handful of tricks that are easy to master.

In this post I’ll be breaking down a chart from Bain & Co., showing exactly how they build such effective, eye-catching, and persuasive visualizations. You’ll learn what tricks they use to help the audience quickly and easily understand the chart’s key message, and how you can use these same tricks to make your own charts clear, engaging, and insightful. 

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In this Bain slide, it’s just a simple line chart that shows the growth in earnings for two different groups of MedTech companies: Category leaders and everyone else.

Bain chart

“Why Category Leadership Matters More Than Ever in Medtech” Bain, December 2020

The Y-axis shows the growth in earnings before interest and taxes for each of these two groups, and it has been indexed to 100, so we can compare them apples to apples. The X-axis represents time – from 2007 before the recession until 2019. So you can see pretty clearly that these category leaders significantly outperform the other MedTech companies both during and after the recession.

Bain chart

Choosing a line chart

There are many things that Bain has done well with this chart, but the first thing to note is their decision to use a line chart. Line charts are great when you are trying to show how information changes over time. Our brains naturally associate line charts with time because there is a connection between each of the data points. 2012 is connected to 2013, which is connected to 2014, and so on.

If I put this in a column chart, there would be a natural gap between each year, so the data points would feel a little more disconnected. Bain wants us to notice the connection because they want us to see a trend; more specifically, they want us to see how the trend for the Category Leaders differs from the other companies.

Bain chart

Using a descriptive title

There are actually two titles on the chart, and they are both important in their own way. The title just above the chart explains the data: “Growth in earnings before interest and taxes (2007 indexed to 100)”. And this is obviously a critical component of the chart that helps the audience understand what data is being shown.

Then at the very top, they’ve got another title where they’ve very clearly called out the insight they want you to look for: “In Medtech, turbulent times favor category leaders.” The title helps the audience understand the insight so they know what to look for when they read the chart. After I read that “turbulent times favor category leaders,” it is much easier for me to see that reflected down in the chart with the red line pretty significantly outpacing the grey line.

Bain chart titles

Even for a pretty simple chart like this, the correct interpretation is important. Without a title, I might look at the chart and only conclude that the category leaders have outpaced the other companies over the last few years. But the real insight is a little more nuanced than that.

The message is about how companies perform in response to “turbulent times,” which I probably would not have been thinking about had I just looked at the chart without any direction. In the context of the article, this distinction is important because they are trying to explain what might happen to the Medtech industry in response to Covid-19. By focusing the reader’s attention on how the Medtech industry has reacted to turbulent times in the past, they can make a much stronger argument for how it will react in the future.

Bain chart

Highlighting insights with color

Another thing they have done well is to use color to make the insights pop. Bain consistently does this better than any other consulting firm because its color template lends itself to this. They use black, grey, and red in their slides to provide contrast and help attract attention to what matters the most.

Every slide or chart is a battle for the audience’s attention, so just like you guide them logically, you need to guide them visually. Here the Category Leaders group is what they want you to notice, so highlighting that in red makes that natural and normal (notice how there is nothing else red on the chart competing for your attention).

Bain chart

In addition to the obvious highlights, they have also done an excellent job providing important contextual information, like the grey section indicating the recession. It is critical for this chart because the message is about how companies respond in “turbulent times.” As I am looking at this chart, it is really helpful to see when those turbulent times occurred without have to consciously look for that period myself. It is also important to note that the color is a bit muted (grey instead of red), this keeps the attention on the red line but still shows very clearly that 2008 through 2010 was an important period.

Bain chart highlights

The background highlights can be significant in line charts where my brain might not connect the dots between the years I am looking at and some important period or event. This again goes back to the idea of simplicity. They want to make things as easy as possible for the audience to focus on what is important.

So the takeaway is to make sure to add contextual information to the charts — even if it’s something your audience knows, such as the years of a global recession. It helps to bring the data to life and emphasize the key message.

Adding contextual labels

Another thing they have done well is to add category labels next to the lines. A common mistake I see with line charts like this is to add a different legend, with shaded boxes that tell me what each category means. This is a mistake because you force the audience to look back and forth between the legend and the chart. Adding the labels next to the line is much more intuitive and is just one less thing the reader must worry about when interpreting the data.

Bain chart labels

The small table next to the chart is also critically important. This is one thing consulting firms tend to do pretty well: adding data on top of or next to the slide to help emphasize the message. It shows a nice comparison between the two different groups – the category leaders saw 5% growth between 2010 and 2015 versus 0% growth for the other companies, and then again 8% growth versus 4% growth from 2007 to 2019. This is precisely the message Bain is trying to emphasize, that category leaders performed better in response to the recession. This helps to draw comparisons with the pandemic, which supports the article’s broader message.

Bain chart

Formatting the chart

Then one final thing I want to call out is how clean and clear this chart is. From the title to the labels, everything is well-formatted, nicely aligned, and properly in place. There is nothing on the chart that does not have a purpose, and the overall presentation is easy to read and interpret. The white background contrasts nicely with the black, the grey, and the red, and the font is simple and easy to read. All these things together help me as a reader see what I need to see quickly and easily. Plus, it’s just nice to look at it.

Bain proper format

Final thoughts

Overall, Bain does an excellent job with this chart, and gives us a good example for how to visualize data in a way that is clear, compelling, and insightful. They’ve taken care to choose the right chart to fit the message, find ways to highlight what’s important, clearly call out the insight, and keep the organization of the chart clear and easy to follow. The final result is a very high quality slide. 

You can watch a video version of this article on YouTube.

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