Creating a React Library for Consistent Data Visualization

This post was updated on December 7, 2022 to reflect that the Polaris Viz library has been released.

At Shopify, we tell a lot of stories through data visualization. This is the driving force behind business decisions—not only for our merchants, but also for teams within Shopify.

With more than 10,000 Shopify employees, though, it is only natural that different teams started using different tools to display data, which is great—after all, creative minds create diverse solutions, right? The problem is that it led to a lot of inconsistencies, like these two line charts that used to live in the Shopify admin—the page you see after logging in to Shopify, where you can set up your store, configure your settings, and manage your business—for example:

Let’s play Spot the Difference: line widths, dashed line styles, legend styles, background grids, one has labels on the X Axis, the other doesn’t... This isn’t just a “visual styles” problem since they use different libraries, one was accessible to screen readers and the other wasn’t; one was printable the other not.

To solve this problem, the Insights team has been working on creating a React data visualization library—Polaris Viz—that other teams can rely on to quickly implement data visualization without having to solve the same problems over and over again.

But first things first, if you haven’t yet, I recommend you start by reading my co-worker Miru Alves’ amazing blog post where she describes how we used Delta-E and Contrast Ratio calculations to create a color matrix with a collection of colors we can choose from to safely use without violating any accessibility rules.

This post is going to focus on the process of implementing the light and dark themes in the library, as well as allowing library consumers to create their own themes, since not all Shopify brands like Shop, Handshake, or Oberlo use the same visual identity.

Where Did the Inconsistencies Come From?

When we started tackling this issue, the first thing we noticed was that even in places that were already using only Polaris Viz, we had visual inconsistencies. This is because our original components API looked like this:

As you can see, changing the appearance of a chart involved many different options spread in different props, and you either had to create a wrapping component that has all the correct values or pass the props over and over again to each instance. OK, this explains a lot.

Ideally, all charts in the admin should use either the default dark or light themes that the UX team created, so we should make it easy for developers to choose light or dark without all this copyin’ && pasta.

Implementing Themes

To cover the use cases of teams that used the default dark or light themes, we removed all the visual style props and introduced a new theme prop to all chart components:

  • The theme prop accepts the name of a theme defined in a record of Themes.
  • The Theme type contains all visual configurations like colors, line styles, spacing, and if bars should be rounded or not.

These changes allow consumers to have all the good styles by default—styles that match our visual identity, take accessibility into consideration, and have no accidental discrepancies—and they just have to pass in theme=’Light’ if they want to use the Light instead of the Dark theme

This change should cover the majority of use cases, but we still need to support other visual identities. Putting back all those style props would lead to the same problems for whoever wasn’t using the default styles. So how could we make it easy to specify a different visual identity?

Introducing the PolarisVizProvider

We needed a way to allow consumers to define what their own visual identity looks like in a centralized manner so all charts across their applications would just use the correct styles. So instead of having the chart components consume the themes record from a const directly, we introduced a context provider that stores the themes:

By having the provider accept a themes prop, we allow consumers to overwrite the Default and Light themes or add their own. This implementation could cause some problems though: what happens if a user overwrites the Default theme, but doesn’t provide all the properties that are necessary to render a chart. For example what if they forget to pass the tooltip background color?

To solve this, we first implemented a createTheme function:

createTheme allows you to pass in a partial theme and obtain a complete theme. All the properties that are missing in the partial theme will just use the library’s default values.

Next, we implemented a createThemes function. It guarantees that even if properties are overwritten, the theme record will always contain the Default and Light themes:

With both of these in place, we just needed to update the PolarisVizProvider implementation:

Overwriting the Default Theme

From a consumer perspective, this means that you could wrap your application with a PolarisVizProvider, define your Default theme, and all charts will automagically inherit the correct styles. For example:

All charts inside of <App/> will have a blue background by default:

It hurts my eyes, but IT WORKS!

Creating Multiple Themes

You can also define multiple extra themes in the PolarisVizProvider. Each top level key in this object is used as a theme name that you can pass to individual charts later on. For example:

The first chart uses a theme named AngryRed and the second HappyGreen

We did have to repeat the definition of the single series color twice though—seriesColors.single = [‘black’]—it would be even more annoying if we had multiple properties shared by both themes and only wanted to overwrite some. We can make this easier by changing the implementation of the createTheme function to accept an optional baseTheme, instead of always using the default from the library:

With those changes in place, as a consumer I can just import createTheme from the library and use AngryRed as the base theme when creating HappyGreen:

Making Colors Change According to the Data Set

Another important feature we had in the library and didn’t want to lose was to change the series colors according to the data.

In this example, we’re applying a green gradient to the first chart to highlight the highest values as having more ordered items—more sales—is a good thing! In the second chart though, we’re applying a red gradient to highlight the highest values, since having more people return what they ordered isn’t such a good thing.

It would be super cumbersome to create extra themes any time we wanted a specific data series to use a different color, so we changed our DataSeries type to accept an optional colour that can overwrite the series colour coming from the theme:

So for the example above, we could have something like:

Next Steps

Polaris Viz will be open source soon! If you want to get access to the beta version of the library, help us test, or suggest features that might be useful for you, reach out to us at

EDIT: Polaris Viz is now a open source project you can use!

Krystal is a Staff Developer on the Visualization Experiences team. When she’s not obsessing over colors, shapes and animation she’s usually hosting karaoke & billiards nights with friends or avoiding being attacked by her cat, Pluma.