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Bound to extremes

Seth Godin on charts

Long-time reader John S. alerted us to three charting tips given by marketing guru Seth Godin.

  1. One Story
  2. No Bar Charts
  3. Motion

Like John, I agree with One Story most of the time.  However, we don't agree completely with Seth's rationale:

If the facts demand nuance, don't use a graph, because you won't get nuance, you'll get confusion.

It is true that there are a great many confusing charts; it is even more true that more complexity leads to more confusion.  The more data is plotted, the more difficult to control the message.  That's why we advocate simplicity.  Recently, we considered complex charts used for exploration or as catalogs.  This sort of "infographics" is not intended for sales and marketing.  I wonder if Seth had these in mind...

However, a well-designed chart need not cause confusion, even if it is nuanced.  Gelman's chart of social and economic tendencies (here) is a great example of a nuanced chart with one main story but many subsidiary stories, if the reader chooses to look deeper.

The advice of No Bar Charts is misguided.  Seth said:

The correct use of a bar chart is to show how several items change over a period of time. This, of course, demands nuance.

No, and no.  If we want to show items changing over time, use a line chart.  The slope of the line gives additional information, that is, the growth rate.  (For example, here.)  It is a tough audience indeed who consider a single time series to be "nuanced", i.e. confusing according to tip #1.

There are indeed situations where bar charts work poorly: see here.  I particularly dislike grouped bar charts, much used in market research.  For many such situations, line charts or dot charts do a better job.

Motion can indeed be powerful.  We have shown some examples of great dynamic graphics, for example, the obesity map.  Our early review of Gapminder pointed to its use of motion as well.

But motion is difficult to execute well.  Motion is a type of nuance, and true to Seth's words, nuance can be distracting if not done properly.

Reference: "The three laws of great graphics", Seth Godin, July 10 2008.


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Sure, a line chart is better than a bar chart on illustrating time-series data, especially when there is background grid.

Jorge Camoes

There is a nuance (oops!) in Godin's laws: they only apply to Powerpoint presentations, not to information display in general. (Uff!)

Seth Godin on graphs: not exactly a purple cow.

John S.

Jorge, why should putting a graph in a Powerpoint presentation make any diference? Most of us have to present our work to customers and peers in formal presentations. I follow similar principles in making graphs for published articles and for presentation slides. In keeping with the first point, I do tend to choose simpler graphics for presentation. But the rest of Godin's advice is pretty bad, even if it is just meant to apply to Powerpoints.

Consider "no barcharts". The graphic accompanying this article is a recent example of a barchart that I found interesting. Kaiser may be correct that a line chart is better suited to showing change over time, but can you imagine how terrible these data would look in a pie chart?

Personally I cringe every time I see some Congressman on C-SPAN standing in front of a big chart on an easel (perhaps it's just the memory of Ross Perot, who began the trend), but a graphic like the one in the Times article would certainly be appropriate in that setting. A pie chart just wouldn't work.

Jon Peltier

John -

It's not PowerPoint specifically, it's the target audience. Seth is a marketing guru, and he's talking about his guidelines for sharing data with nontechnical audiences. He seems to think oversimplification is a good practice, particularly when leading sheep.

I've just written my third post on the topic of Seth's charting philosophies:
On Seth Godin on Charts

Jorge Camoes

John, would you use sparklines in a Powerpoint presentation for a large audience? Probably not. The principles may be similar, but different resolutions and viewing conditions mean that you need to choose your charts carefully.

Andreas Lipphardt

In chart design it’s good to make things simple, but you certainly should avoid oversimplification.

As Einstein said: "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler"

Effective chart design follows a simple and robust chart type selection process

  1. Determine the relationship you want to display
  2. Determine if you want to emphasize individual values or the overall pattern
  3. Determine the chart type The set of available chart types certainly includes the bar chart, just use the bar chart in the appropriated business context.

More on Chart Rules, As Simple as Possible, But Not Any Simpler!

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