Introduction

Tables should be used to:

  • allow comparison of individual data values
  • present a very precise level of detail
  • show multiple units of measure (for example, measurements and percentages)
  • present only a small number of data values
  • show values and their sums

Data order in tables

Group the data into meaningful subsets and make it clear in what order it should be read. Hierarchy and grouping can be shown by using white space and indenting column headings.

Grouped data

A table is made up of classification variables and data values, either of these can be used to order your table depending on the context.

If the table is not ranked by data value and the classification variables have a natural order, like age or geography, keep this order in the table.

Additional guidance is available on the recommended standard presentation order of statistics.

Put the variables that are most likely to be compared in columns, with the units, tens or hundreds beneath one another.

Where data are most likely to be compared between years

Where data are most likely to be compared between ages

Time should run from left to right or top to bottom.

Hierarchy and grouping

Show hierarchy and grouping using white space and by indenting column headings.

Registered deaths by sex
England and Wales, 2013 number of deaths
All persons Males Females
England and Wales 505,690 244,934 260,756
England 473,552 229,291 244,261
North East 26,465 12,589 13,876
North West 69,045 33,385 35,660
Yorkshire and The Humber 50,342 24,237 26,105
East Midlands 42,277 20,739 21,538
West Midlands 52,260 25,742 26,518
East 53,269 25,694 27,575
London 47,580 23,609 23,971
South East 77,778 37,213 40,565
South West 54,536 26,083 28,453
Wales 32,138 15,643 16,495

Column spacing

It’s easier to read columns of numbers if they are tightly spaced. Columns should use equal spacing, unless there is a specific reason for altering it. Split column headings over lines to save using wide columns, but choose a sensible place to put the line break.

Fonts

The font type and size should match the font used in your publication. The font should be mono-spaced, with the same width for each character or digit, so that all the units align.

Bold text in tables

Don’t put numbers in bold as they will move from their correct alignment.

46,363

Not

46,363

Number alignment

Always right-align headings and data in columns so that units, tens, hundreds and thousands are aligned and numbers of equal value are easily comparable.

524,623
12
22,354
7,356
457
3

Not

524,623
12
22,354
7,356
457
3

Or

524,623
12
22,354
7,356
457
3

Number rounding

Always use a consistent level of precision, but use the lowest level possible for the intended user.

For the “inquiring citizen”, that is, a broader, less statistical audience :

260,000

For the “information forager”, for example, a local politician making decisions about future council tax charges:

264,300

For the “expert analyst”, for example, in a statistical journal discussing the detailed methodology behind the estimation, or in a situation where reproducibility is important:

264,337

Effective rounding

Effective rounding can be used to communicate and present numbers so that they can be understood quickly and easily. Remove any unimportant or irrelevant information, but keep the detail in the data.

Look at whether there is a difference between the first numbers, second numbers, third numbers and so on. You should round the numbers for comparison to two effective digits.

When using effective rounding you may need an extra level of rounding when a value is small enough that the detail is removed when using two effective digits. If the value is not important it could be removed from the table. If it is important the level of effective rounding should be adjusted to an appropriate level.

Three levels of effective rounding

21.9 million
17.3 million
11.2 million
0.4 million

Not (no effective rounding)

21,912,963
17,271,420
11,243,817
436,254

Not (two levels of effective rounding)

21 million
17 million
11 million
0 million

Totals

Totals can go at the top or the bottom of a table, depending on their relevance and importance.

If your data are hierarchical, positioning the totals at the top can help emphasise that the total is broken down.

Measures

Use the same measure across all variables where possible.

Make it clear if different measures, for example measurements and percentages, are being used in the same table.

Shading, gridlines and other lines

Use lines and shading sparingly. Use subtle colours or greyscale. Make sure the shading doesn’t distract from the data.

Shading can be used to track data across rows but also to highlight specific values.

Units

Put the units as a header in the top right corner of the chart. Use subheadings if the units change within a chart.

Captions, titles and subtitles

Captions can be very useful to highlight key messages within a table. Captions are optional and should only be used where there is an appropriate story.

Titles should be clear and concise, noting the main axes of the table, unless one of the categories is included in the subtitle. Don’t use capital letters for table titles or headings in tables.

Subtitles should include the geography and a time period, either a single year or the range of years covered in the data.

The heading should be slightly larger than the table font and in bold. 

The gap between male and female life expectancy has narrowed

Life expectancy at birth by sex
UK, 1980 to 2014

Annotations

Use letters to annotate numbers and numbers to annotate words or letters.

24.7a
Wales3

Position the explanation of the annotations underneath the table.

Annotations should be slightly smaller than the table font.

Source

If the data within your publication are from multiple sources list the individual data source(s) beneath each table.

If all data within your publication are from the same data source reference it in the main body text.