Creating a Power BI style guide

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Published on: September 15, 2022
Written by: Tridant

Microsoft Power BI is a powerful business intelligence (BI) tool that is continuing to gain market share  and adoption for its affordability and ease of use. In the past few years it has consistently made the top of the best BI tools lists, and for good reason.

With many pre-built templates available to use, Power BI dashboard design is smoother than ever. However, without a style guide to use as reference, it can be challenging to make full use of Power BI’s customisation capability and create dashboards that work in harmony with your brand’s visual identity and user needs.

In this article, we discuss why it’s important to create a style guide for Power BI implementation and what this could look like.

Why is a style guide important?

1. Consistency in branding

Brand application is just as important in internal documentation as it is in external marketing and promotional collateral, and yet this often gets overlooked. While your customers will likely never see your reports, unless you are taking the exciting next step towards external data sharing, staff and other end users will connect more powerfully to dashboards that have been designed to suit your brand’s visual language and style.

Seeing branding applied in this way evokes trust, recognition, memorability and an overall better user experience that helps businesses make good decisions.

2. Good Power BI dashboard design helps everyone
  • Decision makers: A style guide will ensure developers work with design ‘best practice’ in mind at all times. The end result will be more unified and cohesive across various departments or business units. This will help familiarise end users with visual cues, iconography, ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ trends and results, and other information hierarchy. This assists these important users with interpretation of various scenarios and makes for a more productive user experience.
  • Financial managers: Without a style guide any investment in analytics tools will see a lower ROI. If you’re going to use a BI tool, it makes more sense to do it properly: create beautiful dashboards for your users, and get as much financial (and other) value from it as possible.
  • BI developers: A style guide will make a developer’s job more efficient and enjoyable. Having a guide to follow will help developers save time and resources trying to determine how to visually represent specific rules or datasets.
3. Staff adoptability and adaptability

When a new data visualisation consultant or developer joins the team, a style guide will make it much easier for them to pick up where another person left off.

4. Template and theme development

You can create your own custom layout template in Power BI that can be used as a starting point for new dashboards. You should save a template for each of the layouts you show in Section 1 below.

What to include in a Power BI style guide

1. Section: Information architecture

This section should provide an overview of the dashboard interface. You may wish to include items such as:

  • UI structure and template: This may include wireframes of page template layout(s), along with alternatives if relevant. It’s important to show examples of placement of prominent KPI boxes and max number of specific charts on a page. You may also like to provide a baseline grid and pixel measurements of ideal spacing between elements on the page. Grids are not used in Power BI but having a grid as reference can help developers visualise a full page layout before building.
  • Header and/or sidebar layout: Include a close up view of the header and which elements should go where. This may include logo placement, titles, filters and buttons.
  • Design principles: Provide a visual overview of general design principles that can be followed. This includes information on things like hierarchy, alignment, negative space, use of colour, proximity and balance. A basic understanding of these principles can go a long way to making sure the final product appears professionally designed.
  • Visual examples: Now pull together all of the above and provide a couple of example dashboards with placeholder data that can be used for design reference.
2. Section: Visual style guide / UI kit

This section can be used to explore more detailed styling and best practice rules for putting together a dashboard, report or scorecard. This section can also act as an asset kit or UI kit in that the elements presented - such as fonts and icons - can be linked to and accessed as packaged files. In this section you might like to include:

  • Colour palette: Make sure to include colour rules for traffic lights and heatmaps here, and you can also go into detail on which colours in the palette to use as default and which colours can and can not be used together to ensure correct contrast.
  • Typography: Provide information on which typefaces to use and any specific rules on colours, bolding, sizing etc.
  • UI element styles: Show examples of button design (regular, hover, clicked etc.), dropdown and selection box design, placement of icons on dashboard and charts, data label design, drill buttons, and legend design.
  • Icon library: If you have developed a custom icon library for use in your Power BI reporting you can reference this here. This makes it easy for developers to check which icons are available before searching for the file.
3. Section: Chart and table style/specifics

This section can be dedicated to providing example designs or mock ups of individual chart designs. Power BI allows a good amount of chart customisation, so it's important to spend some time creating rules around specific visualisation types. This may include:

  • Information on which charts to use as default for specific data, and which should never be used.
  • Chart naming conventions
  • Decimals, table justification etc.
4. Optional section: 'How to' guide

You may decide to include some information and screenshots on how to use Power BI for those less advanced users. This could include:

  • Template creation
  • Theme creation
  • Applying a template
  • Data sources
  • How to create basic visualisations
  • Advanced visualisations
  • Custom maps
  • Custom KPI boxes
  • Chart hacks that will help you further customise beyond the design options provided
  • Using plugins and add-ons

Limitations to consider

Individual developer ability

It’s important to consider individual skillsets of BI developers. Having options in your style guide for both entry-level and more advanced users is a great addition. This might include template examples for a ‘basic’ skinned report vs a more visual or interactive dashboard.

Sharing of library assets

Depending on which Power BI product you’re using, you have a couple of options for sharing dashboards and libraries. Be sure to understand what you’re working with before including complex visuals and images as these will need to be either embedded or hosted somewhere with open permissions in order to be visible to all users.

Microsoft fonts

While you can import external font files in Power BI, we recommend using a Microsoft font (that comes with the software) where possible. This ensures all users will be able to see the fonts correctly as these will be installed directly on their machine.

Power BI is quickly becoming the de facto standard Enterprise Business Intelligence tool, however many organisations are allowing it proliferate unguided throughout the organisation without adequate thought towards good design principles and practices. The result is a substandard implementation and dissatisfied users requiring effort to undo that technical debt. Collaborating with a visual designer or data visualisation expert on the development of a professional style guide will be both powerful and invaluable when it comes to your organisation’s Power BI dashboard design and data visualisation projects.

Please contact us if you would like to have a discussion with us about how Power BI can add value to your organisation.

About the author

Sonja Meyer is a Senior Visual Designer and Co-Director of Ethical Design Co. Sonja has been working with Tridant as a design consultant for 11 years, providing customers with bespoke design solutions that enhance visualisation capability.

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