De-noising data
Hard work pays off

Back to basics

Today, we review one of the basic principles Ed Tufte very effectively advocated in his famous book: use gridlines and data labels only if absolutely necessary. The enemy is redundancy.

Here is a chart that appeared in the New York Times Real Estate pages: (with this article)


The gridlines serve no purpose. Between the axis labels and the data labels, the designer should pick one. If the data labels are used, then the vertical axis can be removed entirely without affecting our ability to understand the data. One can also argue that the data labels do not convey any real information since the average person is unlikely to be able to process 1004 feet versus 1250 feet. Why not remove the data labels and retain only the axis labels?

I'd be willing to go so far as to remove all data from the chart itself. This is because the Empire State Building has been chosen as the reference point. The assumption behind this choice is that the readers have a sense of "tallness" of the Empire State Building. It is then sufficient to just place columns of different heights next to the Empire State Building. To make the comparison a little easier, one can draw a reference line from the top of the Empire State, like this:




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btw how do i know if these are real buildings and not lego models. without the height information i cannot tell. why did you remove the names of the buildings?


I humbly disagree. Not about the principle -- rather, I think the chart in the Times is the exception that proves the rule. While the data labels may not be "absolutely necessary", in the silly game of Tallest Skyscraper every foot matters. I read the Times chart from left to right and it's as though I see a story unfold, nicely sequenced, and the details *do* add to the narrative. I would say your gridline change is an improvement, but in every other way I prefer the original chart.


The minimalist redo is nice. I agree with Matt that in this case people are likely to want to know the actual numbers. I would place them below the X axis, along with the other supplemental information.

ezra abrams

1) please fix the design flaw in your blog where the comment link is below a thin grey line that separates the comment link from the article
2) do you have any data in support of your opinions ?
thought so; your ideas on gridlines are just assertions, totally unbacked by anything like data

I issue a challange to you:
show the two forms of the graph to 100 random people, and ask them a few questions, and see which graph people are able to interpret, and which one they like
I'm bettin dollars to donuts the original is better (ever think that the N Y Times might know a thing or two about graphic layout ? )
PS: most of what Tufte says, N Robbins says better (per SOP, the female without the high falutin university title gets the shaft)


MSB: I didn't mean to remove the building names.

Matt: No need to be humble. I said "I'd be willing to go so far as". For me, the absolute height is not interesting but the relative height is. I respect that others may disagree.

Jeff: I like your recommendation. Put the annotation below the fold.

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