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The power of layers and floating elements in Tableau

What would you say if I tell you that the visualisation below has only
 (yes, one!) tiled or fixed element and the rest are floating
images and
 charts? … Let me show you how !

For a very long time now, I have loved the power of creating visualisations in Tableau using mainly floating elements. I have also had numerous discussions about the difference between “tiled” (fixed elements) and “floating” elements.

Fully tiled visualisations are great when thinking in terms of business dashboards as every element will fit perfectly on a determined grid and layout but, what happens when you want to go beyond that and create a designed infographic-look-a-like visualisation? … Well, that’s when floating is king !

The first time I created a viz using floating elements in Tableau was back when we were using version 8.3 (yes, that long ago!) and must admit that wasn’t very good. It was clunky and difficult to place your elements in the right exact place you wanted to. Thankfully, the Dev team at Tableau (you guys rock!) listened to our prayers and for quite some time now, floating elements in Tableau are easy to use and you can pixel-pin-point where exactly your images or graphs should be placed.

But first things first, before start throwing images and graphs onto your dashboard, you have to create a mock up of your final viz, just like the image on the left. Me and the I FOR IDEAS team created this mock up mainly to focus on the story and primarly to understand how and where each element will be placed later on. It is only a draft and as you will see below, from here to the final visualisation, there are always changes and new ideas. This however, allows you to have a visual image of the full viz what it’ll look like (more or less!) when finished.

You may say: “I don’t have a design team to work with” … true, but still you can create your mock up on a piece of paper or Power Point or any other software you like. The idea is to have it present and in front of you while creating your visualisation … it helps you stay focused on your final viz !

OK … Let’s work this out !

Layers … yes, we love layers !

For those who have previously worked with Adobe Photoshop will be very familiar with the concept of “layers”. If you haven’t, then think of layers as “floors on a building”, where one floor goes on top of the other, in the same way, one layer goes on top of the other. This creates a fantastic effect of different elements like graphs on top of images or backgrounds.

To better understand the concept of layers, let me show you this quick video on how layers work. This is how we created the Game of Thrones visualisation (See it on Tabeau Public here), which recreates and explains the concept of different elements on top of each other (just click play!):

Cool, right? … now that we saw how layers work, the image above-left was created as a static background. It works as a placeholder where all the floating elements will be placed. As a first rule, all graphs that require or need user interactivity will have to be placed at “the Front” or on top of all the other elements. To do that, simply select your graph and click on the arrow as shown below and navigate through the “Floating Order” options:

In this case, I selected the graph with the location of each squirrel and using the “Floating Order” menu, you can start ordering the floating elements in order of appearance (top to bottom). During the whole process, you’ll always have to consider user interactivity in order to place the elements in the correct order.

Let’s start building the viz

The GIF image to the left shows step-by-step how each element was added to the visualisation starting from to background image and finishing with the data source and design credits. This is where the Position and Size options on Layout (Tableau Desktop) truly become your “best friends!”

Using both, Position and Size, allows you to pin-point in pixels, exactly where you want your floating elements to be located and more important, the size and space they will ocupy on your visualisation.

Always remember to consider “white spaces” or the spaces between elements on your viz. It is very easy to fall into the trap of squeezing all together when working with floating elements.

Typography and colours are essential to great designs, but that will come on another blog post !

What’s next?

It’s be great if you can do two things … 

1- Feel free to download my viz, break it appart and see how all floating elements work together.
2- Try creating your own viz using purely floating elements (or at least most of them!) … it takes time, but the results are great !

Here is the final interactive visualisation … enjoy and thanks for reading !

About The Author

Pablo Gomez

Originally from Argentina, Pablo co-founded I FOR IDEAS, a Branding and Marketing company specialised on graphic design and digital content. After working in data analysis and reporting for over a decade, he was introduced to Tableau in early 2013. Always fascinated by Data and Graphic Design, Tableau was the perfect platform to combine both of his passions.


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