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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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  • $\begingroup$ +1 Great question; will be interested to see the answers. $\endgroup$
    – Shane
    Oct 13, 2010 at 2:00
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    $\begingroup$ @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 $\endgroup$
    – suncoolsu
    Oct 13, 2010 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ @suncoolsu I suppose any good resource on table design should talk about the pros and cons of tables versus graphics. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2010 at 5:25
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    $\begingroup$ @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 $\endgroup$
    – chl
    Oct 13, 2010 at 6:17
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    $\begingroup$ @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. $\endgroup$
    – TMOD
    May 14, 2011 at 23:49

8 Answers 8

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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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    $\begingroup$ The Jane Miller is book is really quite excellent. $\endgroup$
    – dimitriy
    Feb 13, 2012 at 21:10
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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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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

Gelman argues that graphs are better than tables in the above paper. Then his satire piece provides a look at elements commonly found in tables that make them particularly difficult to interpret. Why Tables are Really Much Better than Graphs suggest the following (interpreted as satire, these are actually what not to do):

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

Both are great reads.


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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    $\begingroup$ Great, they seem to be both available for free on the web! $\endgroup$
    – Peter Smit
    Nov 15, 2010 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ It's not clear from your answer, but "Why Tables are Really Much Better than Graphs" is a satire. $\endgroup$
    – hadley
    Mar 19, 2011 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ @hadley I updated my answer to clarify. Thanks for pointing that out. $\endgroup$ Oct 5, 2011 at 14:21
  • $\begingroup$ And it has been published... $\endgroup$
    – hadley
    Oct 5, 2011 at 19:20
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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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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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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$
    – chl
    Oct 17, 2010 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2010 at 15:22
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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. https://doi.org/10.1198/000313005X21429

Also, Howard Wainer discusses table design in Visual Revelations.

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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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The UN Document "Making Data Meaningful" provides a nice overview, with rules and examples, of table design in Section 3 (p 12-17).

This is in part 2 of a set of guidelines on 'using text and visualizations to bring statistics to life' https://www.unece.org/stats/documents/writing/

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