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The unspoken rules of visualization

My latest is at DataJournalism.com.

Ejc_unspokenrulesbanner

It's an essay on the following observation:

The efficiency and multidimensionality of the visual medium arise from a set of conventions and rules, which regularises the communications between producers of data visualisation and its consumers. These conventions and rules are often unspoken: it's the visual equivalent of saying ’it goes without saying’ .

There are lots of little things visualization designers do in their sleep that don't get mentioned. When a visual design deviates from these rules, the readers may get confused.

Here is one example I discussed in the article (hat tip to Xan Gregg).

Fig04_piechart_diverging

This pie chart is not easy to read beyond the obvious point that English is the most popular. The following pie chart is much easier on the readers:

Fig03_piechart_conforming

Why?

The designer follows some common conventions, such as placing the first slice at the top vertical, sorting the slices from largest to smallest (excepting the "other"), and introducing multiple colors only to encode data differences.

These rules are silently applied, and are not announced to the reader. There is a network effect: the more practitioners use these rules, the stronger they stick.

My essay attempts to outline some of the most important unspoken rules of visualizaiton. For more, see here.

Comments

Matt VE

Nice essay. There appears to be an error in the Australia tourism example, however, with identical left and right panes. I presume that the Y-axis labels were supposed to be round numbers in the improved version, rather than weird numbers like 202.3 in the original.

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