Stress in chart-reading
Can good charts be entertaining?

Feast for the eyes?

Readers of this site will know that the otherwise venerable British business magazine, the Economist, could use some help with their data graphics.  I have  on two obsessions in particular, the awful donut chart and appending of an additional data series to a line chart.

Readers familiar with the USA Today newspaper will know about their one-a-day graphic on the lower left corner of the front page.  I have avoided commenting on them because they usually violate every rule in the book.  Here are two from the pile:


It is with some sadness that I must report that the Economist has joined the race to the bottom.  Its recent publication called "The World in 2006" contains a score of exasperating, over-adorned graphics of the USA Today variety.  Consider these specimen (thanks to Patrick for alerting me).






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I think there is a crucial point that you overlook in all of these criticisms: the target reader.

If your are writing for economists, statisticians, or equity analysts, your readers are looking for data and used to looking at charts.

The economist (and others) have a broader audience that need to be coaxed into data analysis and entertained a bit. You could make the same comments on the Economist's sense of humor. Yes, they could make their points more effectively in dry analytical writing. Again, economists and others would still read it, but a lot of others wouldn't. The entertaining style of the Economist's writing and graphics make me and others read it more often and more completely.

The chart you show with the palm tree and beach obviously has entertainment value, but I would also argue it is practical. If you did a simple line chart, less people would look, even if the data was easier to see. So I think a measure of how much information the average reader took away would be more positive from a fun chart that 70% of readers look at than a dull chart that 40% view - even if technically the information is presented more clearly in the second.



Do not underestimate your reader! Do you really need to be an economist to understand what a line graph of oil prices means? If you need some “pretty fluff” to entice you to look at the thing, what is the point of displaying the graphic anyway? The point is not to entertain, it is to accurately convey the data. At least I still retain some hope that The Economist’s goal is to convey information. I have other places I go when I want entertainment.

Again: Do not underestimate the intelligence of your readers. Most readers of these publications have college degrees as well. Saying that they need pretty pictures to be enticed to look at a graph is simply insulting!

The best graphics are a result of good design AND a good dataset. This is an extremely important point to remember. No magic can save a boring dataset. If a graph is not worthy to look at on it’s own (without fluff), then maybe you shouldn’t use it. Graphs are only valuable as tools to help us understand complex and interesting datasets. Graphs and statistics aren’t inherently boring, only uninteresting datasets are boring.

Also, don’t forget that often this Chartjunk distorts readers’ interpretation of the numbers (the lie factor). This is a serious issue, because now the truth is being concealed.

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