The distribution of various charts and other objects on a canvas is a key part of creating meaningful data visualization. For anyone coming to Power BI from Tableau, what might they expect the experience to be when designing the basic layout of a dashboard (er…”report”)? In this post, I cover some of the key differences and similarities when it comes to arranging objects on a Tableau dashboard versus a Power BI report page.
- Tiled vs Floating Objects
- Smart Guides
- Snap Objects to Grid
- Format Painter
- Dashboard / Report Size
Tiled vs Floating
Tableau offers a Tiled layout option that quickly allows authors to build an aligned dashboard. Sheets, images, and other dashboard content can be added as tiles. Alternately, the Floating option provides the advantage of flexibility to position objects within a dashboard. Floating has some disadvantages if you want a precise grid, but one way to overcome this is to create a layout using empty tiled containers, then position floating objects on top of the tiled grid instead of adding sheets or other objects directly as tiled.
To borrow from Tableau’s terminology, Power BI is Floating only. There is nothing directly similar to Tableau’s Tiled option. Exclusive Power BI users would not use or know these terms in relation to that software’s behavior though. Power BI has an optional grid system, but Tableau users will find that it does not behave in the same way as building a tiled dashboard in Tableau. There are, however, many convenient ways to quickly position Power BI’s floating visuals that do not currently have equivalents in Tableau: Smart Guides, Snap Objects to Grid, Align, and Distribute.
Power BI recently introduced Smart Guides to help with aligning visuals on a report page. If you are familiar with aligning objects in PowerPoint, Power BI’s Smart Guides offer a similar option. Simply click and drag a visual, and when an edge or center is close to aligning with the edge or center of another visual or set of visuals, red dashed lines appear. Releasing the visual then “snaps” it into place.
Power BI’s Smart Guides are enabled by default, but you can toggle that option under Options / Report Settings / Visual Options.
Snap Objects to Grid
If you enable the Snap Objects to Grid option on the View tab, the single pixel by single pixel report page changes to a more manageable grid of about ten pixels by ten pixels. This more easily allows you to drag visuals, shapes, or images around and put them into alignment. While not as visible as Smart Guides, this is an easy way to align a single visual to the background grid.
Visual Alignment and Distribution in Power BI
What if you want to align multiple visuals at once? When I first started with Power BI, Snap Objects to Grid did not exist, and I was heavily reliant on adjusting each visual’s X Position and Y Position manually in the Format area. It took forever.
While X Position and Y Position offer precision alignment, there’s a better and faster way to position multiple visuals. Power BI allows the selection of multiple visuals at once using Ctrl+click. There are some time-saving shortcuts that you can take by selecting visuals simultaneously. This allows you to take advantage of Power BI’s Align and Distribute options after selecting multiple visuals using Ctrl+click.
The Align option appears in the Format tab in the ribbon (not the Format paint roller icon). Power BI’s options are similar to aligning objects in an Office application such as PowerPoint. Rather than aligning floating visuals by look and then adjusting the X or Y positioning manually, using Align provides precise layout alignment with only a few clicks.
If you Ctrl+click on three or more visuals in Power BI, the Distribute option that appears next to Align allows users to quickly space visuals either horizontally or vertically on the report page.
Format Painter in Power BI
Another advantage besides Smart Guides that Power BI takes from Microsoft Office is the Format Painter. Once you have a visual setup in Power BI, use the Format Painter to apply consistent font, labels, color, and other format options to other applicable visuals. Like Align and Distribute, the Format Painter is another tool that I should have taken advantage of in Power BI from the start.
Rather than go through the time-consuming process of formatting individual visuals, apply formatting to a “paradigm” visual. Once that single visual is setup the way you want, apply the same formatting options to other Power BI visuals with a simple click.
Dashboard Size / Report Page Size
If you want to move beyond the default dashboard size in Tableau, there are a variety of preset Fixed sizes. Authors can select from one of the presets, such as Generic Desktop, or choose Custom and specify the desired pixel size.
In addition, Tableau offers Automatic and Range sizing.
Power BI, by comparison, has fixed options but does not allow dynamic sizing of its report pages. To change the default size of a report page (16:9 aspect ratio, 1280 pixels wide, 720 pixels high), first make sure that you do not have any visuals selected. Select the Format icon and then expand Page Size. Like Tableau, there are some preset sizes, but there is also a Custom option for more control.