Of placebos and straw men
Too big by half

Seth's Rules

(Via Gelman blog)

Prominent marketer Seth Godin came up with some sensible rules for making "graphs that work".  We pretty much agree with most of what he says here, unlike the last time he talked about charting.

One must recognize that he has a very specific type of chart in mind, the purpose of which is to facilitate business decisions.  And not surprisingly, he advocates simple, predictable story-telling.

His first rule: dispense with Excel and Powerpoint.  Agreed but to our dismay, there are not many alternatives out there that sit on corporate computers.  So we need a corollary: assume that Excel will unerringly pick the wrong option, whether it is the gridlines, axis labels, font sizes, colors, etc.  Spend the time to edit every single aspect of the chart!

His second rule: never show a chart for exploration or one that says nothing.  I used to call these charts that murmur but do not opine.  (See here, for example.)  This pretty much condemns the entire class of infographics as graphs that don't work.   This statement will surely drive some mad.  One of the challenges that face infographics is to bridge the gap between exploration and enlightenment, between research and insight.  As I said repeatedly, I value the immense amount of effort taken to impose structure and clarity on massive volumes of data -- but more is needed for these to jump out of the research lab.

In rules 3 and 4, Seth apparently makes a distinction between rules made to be followed and rules made to be broken.  In his view, time going left to right belongs to the former while not using circles belongs to the latter.  He gave a good example of why pictures of white teeth are preferred to pie charts, bravo.  I hope all those marketers are listening.

As readers know, I cannot agree with "don't connect unrelated events".  He's talking about using line charts only for continuous data.  This rule condemns the whole class of profile plots, including interaction charts in which statisticians routinely connect average values across discrete groupings.  The same rule has created the menace of grouped bar charts used almost exclusively to illustrate market research results (dozens to hundreds of pages of these for each study).  I'd file this under rules made to be broken!

What menace?


What menace?


What menace?


What menace?

Alright, I made my point.  If you don't work in market research, the mother lode of cross-tabs and grouped bars, consider yourself lucky.  If you do, will you start making line charts please?


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Tom West

"don't connect unrelated events" does not mean "using line charts only for continuous data". Your graph in the post 'Serving donuts' connects discrete items which are related (in that case, the discrete points are connected according to the ability level they represent).
The point I would take away is that continuous data should always be connected because its certainly related, while you should stop and think before connecting discrete data.

(My personal rule with line graphs and discrete categories is to ask whetehr or not you can have something meaningful half way between two points).


Talking about Chart Rules and Excel, you need to have a look on Chart Tamer:

Chart Tamer implements a set of sensible Chart Rules, it attempts to align Excel’s charts with the best practices of data visualization, as taught in the book Show Me the Numbers by Stephen Few of Perceptual Edge. It tames Excel’s charts, which seem to exhibit Microsoft’s belief that “more is better”, by bringing them into line with the data presentation philosophy that “simple is better.” We don’t need more choices—we need a few good choices that really work.



Chart Tamer improves the charts that we produce with Excel in the following ways:

  • It limits the list of available charts to the few that are most useful, thereby reducing the complexity of choosing an appropriate chart
  • It provides a simple new interface for selecting an appropriate chart, which guides us to the right selection when help is needed without bogging us down when it’s not
  • It adds three useful charts that aren’t currently available in Excel: dot plots, strip plots, and box plots
  • It revises the formatting defaults of Excel’s charts so that no extra work is necessary to create charts that work effectively
  • It provides colors for use in charts and elsewhere that were designed to work especially for data presentation


James McBride

I'm new to this site, so apologies if this question has been answered elsewhere here. You agree with Godin suggestion of dumping Excel and Powerpoint, but neither you nor he have suggested what your preferred alternative is. If it's R (as listed in your "Sources of Inspriation", then I have to disagree, as I find it too fiddly and complex to charts which look nowhere near as polished as those I get in Excel, and I say that as someone who spends too much time adjusting the default settings in Excel. It's a shame that Harvard Graphics fell so far behind in the transition from DOS to Windows.

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