Can good charts be entertaining?
Jan 15, 2006
A response to Jack's comments on the Economist charts.
Junk Charts pleads guilty to the charge that this blog's attitude is seriously serious, except on rare occasions. That is because we believe data analysis to be a serious subject. That said, we do wonder how entertainment value can co-exist with data integrity; and thus far, we have not found the happy medium.
Tufte's favorite chart of Napoleon's Russian campaign is one example of an entertaining and informative chart. For anyone who knows or follows the Bumps Race, the Bumps chart is highly expressive. We believe that entertainment can be a by-product og graph-making but deliberately seeking it is folly.
Case in point: the palm-tree hedge-fund plot Jack thought to be funny.
At the least, when adding entertainment, the designer must be careful not to distort the data contents but even minor chartjunk can insidiously ruin an otherwise competent chart, as happened here.
Getting rid of the chartjunk, we would revert to a standard time-series chart on a rectangular grid. The palm-tree axis, being curved, is a curious little feature. Its presence meant that the rectangular grid interpretation no longer applies! When reading the data for 2000 for instance, one must trace a curved lines upwards, not the usual vertical line.
The right chart illustrates this. If the designer switches to a curved grid, then the trend line must be transformed from the black line to the red line. (This may remind some of Jacobian transformations in multi-variable calculus.) The error in the Economist chart is akin to showing the black trend line on the red grid.
Also, when the designer focuses on beautifying the chart, she may become careless. For instance, why on earth should the vertical axis start at negative $25 billion assets? One would think that hedge funds with negative assets do not, and cannot, exist. Perhaps it's truly "far from expected" in the Caymans!
I encourage other readers to comment if they have ideas as to how to integrate entertainment into data graphics.
Reference Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Information, page 57-59, especially page 59.
The biggest problem is that not everyone cares about every dataset. Some people are interested in stock data, others in home prices. Even others are interested in government standards or medical experiments. For people interested in the dataset, a clear, well designed graphic will be perfectly satisfactory.
Unfortunately, for any given dataset, the set of people interested in it is probably much smaller than the set of all readers of a publication. Thus I believe publication editors fall into a trap of thinking every reader must be interested in every data graphic. Attempting to draw readers attention to datasets they could care less about, designers use Chartjunk. This has the side effect of likely distorting the data, and also ruining its display for the people who are genuinely interested in the dataset.
Publication editors should understand that not every reader reads every graphic. After all, does every reader read every article? This heterogeneity of readers is why newspapers are divided into sections and sub-sections. Data graphics should appear only in the section where they are relevant, and the writers should assume that anyone reading that section or article where the graphic appears is interested in the data it displays. If not, then they should not display the data. After all, the data should complement the article. So it’s natural to think that readers of the article are interested in the dataset.
My best suggestion would be to stop assuming that everyone needs to be interested in all data every produced. Let the data speak to interested readers. Don’t get in its way.
I suppose it’s evident that I don’t believe data graphics need or should be entertaining beyond the data they display. Entertainment is available almost anywhere and even potentially in the same publication (a newspaper crossword perhaps). So let readers choose what they want: quality information reporting or entertainment. Don’t make this choice for them.
Posted by: Matt | Jan 15, 2006 at 08:32 PM
If the editors are trying to draw the readers' attention to data which would otherwise be of no interest, why bother with the graphics, which most people won't understand anyway? Why not print the articles in multicolored inks, or use goofy fonts like Comic Sans? Better yet, have the journalists write their stories in rhyme.
I agree with Matt, if people want entertainment, they should read the funny papers.
Posted by: John S. | Jan 15, 2006 at 10:48 PM
Thanks for the follow up post. I may have overstated my point if I left the impression that entertainment should be a primary goal of chart-makers.
I do, however, believe that in publications targeting general readers, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that all content is accessible.
The comments above seem to purport that you should only care about readers who are so serious that they will struggle through your data no matter how dry the presentation is. I disagree.
I am not saying that everything should be in cartoon format, have fancy colors, or feature leaning palm trees. In fact, I didn't mean to defend the economist's graphics, which I agree are a bit much.
My contention is that both text and graphic elements both need to keep the reader involved and interested.
I recall an article in the Economist that started out with "They call it a country. In fact it is a Zaire-shaped hole in the middle of Africa".
You can argue that Zaire is a country not a hole; or say that the writer could have said: "Zaire is in bad shape"; or that this sort of frivolity is inappropriate to a serious publication.
However, I read the article and still remember it ten years later. That is good writing.
Posted by: Jack | Jan 17, 2006 at 05:12 AM
WHAT ABOUT CHART MEMORABILITY
See comment above:
"...still remember it ten years later. That is good writing."
If memorability is the measurement of good writing, then maybe the same is true for charting. Then there are good reasons for giving each chart a unique design! It should be much easier to remember a unique image, and thereby its data.
1000 worldmaps coloured with the "best practise" set of colours ...they will all look the same...
Is there any research on how differentiation of design can help the viewer to remember multiple data displays?
- Why do humans love rules...
- It makes life easier...
When Minard made the Napolean chart, was that just by simply combining a set of rules?
Posted by: Ola Rosling | Jan 21, 2006 at 01:17 PM
Most of the datasets I've seen aren't that interesting. The datasets I typically see in newspapers are especially boring. No wonder they try all these gimmicks.
Minard's chart is memorable because it combines a novel visualization with an interesting dataset. It's really hard to get both of those right all the time.
Datasets don’t always even need novel designs to be memorable. One very memorable graph is just the simply plot of inflation versus unemployment with connecting lines. The graph clearly shows that a Phillips curve relation just doesn’t exist, very memorable.
Posted by: Matt M | Jan 21, 2006 at 11:16 PM
I don't believe that the vertical axis really is curved here, just as I don't believe that it has leaves at the top, or coconuts growing on it. Yes, in theory you might be right, but you are putting too much into this, IMHO; and I don't even find the tree to impede on the readability of the chart. I agree about the negative start of the axis, though, that doesn't seem to make any sense at all.
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