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I've seen various theoretical treatments of graphics, such as the Grammar of Graphics. But I have seen nothing equivalent with regards to tables. Over the while I have developed an informal model of good practice in table design. However, I'd like to be able to provide a good reference to students. The APA Style Manual has a few tips on table design, but it is only a starting point.

Question: What is a good resource that provides theoretical and practical advice on the presentation of numeric results in tables?

UPDATE: It would be particularly useful to have a good free online resource.

Note: I'm not sure if this should be community wiki. I feel as if there might be a correct answer.

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@Jeromy, I don't know if Andrew Gelman will be happy with the question, but definitely for small tables this question needs to be addressed. +1 –  suncoolsu Oct 13 '10 at 2:04
@suncoolsu I suppose any good resource on table design should talk about the pros and cons of tables versus graphics. –  Jeromy Anglim Oct 13 '10 at 5:25
@Jeromy Just to point to the apsrtable R package which offers an alternative display of Tables, compared to xtable, and reporttools described in the JSS, j.mp/97GXWV –  chl Oct 13 '10 at 6:17
Currently, most answers are books, so the bounty will go to someone who can provide the best Free resource! (@Jeromy, you could add this to the question if you want) –  Peter Smit Nov 10 '10 at 11:12
@Jeromy, after starting The Grammar of Graphics it also occurred to me also that there should exist a Grammar of Tables (and some kind of gtable package). I'm also curious about whether or not someone could extend Hadley Wickham's ggplot2 to feature controls and interactivity from the GoG. I know there are some packages out there that add interactivity, but don't know if they have a consistent grammar. –  TMOD May 14 '11 at 23:49

8 Answers 8

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Ed Tufte has a few pages on this in his classic "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information".

For a much more detailed treatment, there is Jane Miller's Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers. I've never seen anything else like it. It has a whole chapter on "Creating Effective Tables".

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The Jane Miller is book is really quite excellent. –  Dimitriy V. Masterov Feb 13 '12 at 21:10

Stephen Few's book Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten has a couple of chapters devoted to tabular display of information. It's good and recommended, but it's not quite Grammar of Graphics if that's what you're after.

Update This sounds interesting, but I haven't read it: Handbook of tabular presentation: How to design and edit statistical tables, a style manual and case book. (Curious to hear any comments from someone in the know ..)

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You might check out the documentation for the LaTeX package booktabs; it gives general guidance and implements its design suggestions in LaTeX tables.

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If you are interested in table design, I would definitely recommend two papers on the subject by Andrew Gelman:

A necessary preface to the paper on table design is Gelman et al, 2002 Let's practice what we preach: Turning Tables Into Graphs

But Why Tables are Really Much Better than Graphs (satire) gives more direct input on table design, including:

  1. good tables have lots of numbers
  2. don't obsess about clarity
  3. use exact numbers, minimum of four significant digits
  4. use default table design provided by your favorite software

Gelman, Pasarica, and Dodhia. The American Statistician, 56(2): 121-130

Gelman, 2011. Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics, Vol. 20, No. 1: 3–7.

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Great, they seem to be both available for free on the web! –  Peter Smit Nov 15 '10 at 14:50
It's not clear from your answer, but "Why Tables are Really Much Better than Graphs" is a satire. –  hadley Mar 19 '11 at 15:41
@hadley I updated my answer to clarify. Thanks for pointing that out. –  David Oct 5 '11 at 14:21
And it has been published... –  hadley Oct 5 '11 at 19:20
@hadley thanks for pointing that out –  David Oct 5 '11 at 19:38

I hope this answer is not too off topic, but a couple of days ago I have seen this link on visualizing tables at StackExchange: Visual Representation of Tabular Information – How to Fix the Uncommunicative Table

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The use of circular graphics for tabular data with Circos has been evoked here too, stats.stackexchange.com/questions/3158/…. My opinion is that this is a good way to reduce large symmetric tables, but it is less useful for summary tables with p-values and the like. –  chl Oct 17 '10 at 7:46
The linked post does provide some good insight into the challenges that readers face when confronted with a table; this can be good information when designing tables or choosing alternatives. –  David Nov 15 '10 at 15:22

This CV blog post by @AndyW is a really excellent. It gathers a number of best practices, useful examples, and a helpful literature review with links to papers and other resources.

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I cover table design in the seminars I offer. My sources are primarily Chapter 8 of Few’s Show Me the Numbers and a paper by Martin Koschat:

Koschat, Martin. 2005. “A Case for Simple Tables,” The American Statistician 59:1, 31-40.

Also, Howard Wainer discusses table design in Visual Revelations.

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The UN Document "Making Data Meaningful" provides a nice overview, with rules and examples, of table design in Section 3.

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