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BI Backdrops: How Scrims Can Elevate and Enhance Your Power BI Reports

It’s no secret that we’re big proponents for using Power BI alongside your Business Central solution to up your reporting game. All you need to do is read our Not Just A Dashboard article to see why we’re all-in on the Power Platform’s poster child for data mash-up and analytics.

But beyond the tool and the data is the usability and visual experience that Power BI provides. Far too often we’re inundated with views of dashboards and ‘wall of stuff’ views of Power BI reports. While that’s certainly one way to showcase and surface information onto a screen, the output that you produce with Power BI has to be intuitive and accessible.

That’s where scrims come in – while the term traditionally refers to screens or materials that serve as a visual aid in theatre and performance, in the world of Power BI it refers to the image layout that organizes and provides visual navigation and organization for your report and slicers.

The Blank Canvas

When starting out with Power BI, you are provided with the proverbial tabula rasa for you to work with, emphasizing the total void that you’re about to fill with informational awesomeness:

Where to begin is a matter of personal taste. I typically recommend starting with the end in mind, figuring out who your audience is and what they want to be able to see. For this reason, I like to think through the following elements:

• The Meat and Potatoes: What is the ultimate metric or data that the person wants to see? Is it inventory movement? Is it sales? Is it an operational effectiveness report?
• The Slice and Dice: What do my users want to be able to filter by and slice? Do I need a timeline for a date range? Which variables will shape and form my measures and visuals?
• The Tabbed Organization: What ‘page’ grouping makes sense for this report? If viewing Purchasing and Payables data, would it make sense to have a page focus on transaction-level aggregation and another page focus on vendor/supplier-level scrutiny?
• One Filter to Rule Them All: Does it make sense for a distinct page to house my report-level filters? Will my users want to be able to set a ‘global’ filter and then have more ‘local’ page-level filtering?

All the above ultimately factor into how you’d like to design your report and how you’d want to organize your slicers and pages and lay them out.

The Initial Backdrop

If you’re like me, you’d want to stick to your company’s branding guidelines so that it adds polish and brand-consistency. The next thing I like to think about is the ‘wallpaper’ or filled backdrop for your report. I’m a big fan of throwing the logo into a corner and/or watermarked in the background of my report, so my initial first backdrop will just be for getting a feel for the colour and general look and feel. It could be as simple as:

Or possibly something less flat with a little gradient vignette and a watermark:

Or if I’m feeling very adventurous, I may even take some of the assets from our website and repurpose them for an initial backdrop:

In this case, I think I’ll take the website assets – after, of course, checking in with the branding police marketing team to see if that’d be kosher for internal use.

The only rule I’d say is to keep your background from being distracting. You want it to either be desaturated or out-of-focus or simple-toned so that the actual data stands out.

The dimensions should be 1280 x 720 (though you can also the Image Fit options for other resolutions if the results don’t seem wonky.) Most typical image standards are supported, but chances are you’ll either be using a JPG or a PNG file. You can set the background and even modify the alpha/transparency of the image by using the transparency slider in the formatting pane of Power BI:

Building Out the Content

Once the backdrop is fitted in, I can now surface my visuals and slicers and all that fun stuff. My first cut may look something like this:

Which may have exactly what I want to show, but isn’t very well-organized. So my next course of action is to take a step back and, based on the general ‘shape’ of the cards above figure out how I’d logically like to separate them.

I end up back in my favourite image editor to craft a backdrop that looks like this:

I’ve created (and labeled) the ‘data’ section having the lion’s share of the page and carved out a little box on the right to house my filters. I figured for my report users, that would make the most logical sense and be what they’d want (to be able to quickly multi-select or single-select specific filters).

Now, naturally you could also do away with your on-page filters entirely by leveraging either a clickable slicer pane (shown below):

Or by removing them and having users simply use the filters pane (shown below):

But where’s the fun in that?!

Ultimately, the filters aren’t the point here – it’s creating visual separation of elements on the report by using static backgrounds as the backdrops where it makes the most sense to. This invariably is where the scrims come into play.

Below would be typical of what I usually land on – a little more organized:

Or possibly even functionally-separated into smaller boxes (e.g. for A/R and A/P):

Whatever you decide for your own Power BI project, suffice it to say that you can change up that stock Power BI look and flex some of those creative muscles to get the report to look better, be more brand-aligned, and also be a little more user-friendly… just don’t go too crazy. I’m not entirely sure your boss would appreciate your “Monster Liquidity BI” report:

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