Visualizing the impossible
Dataviz is good at comparisons if we make the right comparisons

Metaphors give and take

Another submission came in from Euro Twitter. The following chart is probably from Germany:


As JB noted, this chart explains a financial pyramid scheme. I believe the numbers on the left are participants while the numbers on the right are the potential ill-gotten gains per person. The longer the pyramid scheme lasts, the more people participate, the more money flows to the top.

The pyramid is a natural metaphor for visualizing pyramid schemes. The levels of the pyramid correspond to levels of a pyramid scheme - the newly recruited participants expand the base while passing revenues up the pyramid.


The chart fails because it's not really a dataviz. There are exactly three bars that are scaled according to data. Everything else is presented as data labels.

Let's look at the two data series separately:


Each series is exponentially growing (in opposite directions). [Some of the data labels for participants may be incorrect.]

Unfortunately, the triangle is not a good medium to display exponential growth. In fact, the triangular structure imposes a linear growth constraint. The length of the base is directly proportional to the height from the top. As one traverses downwards level by level, the width of the base grows linearly - not exponentially.

To illustrate exponential growth, the edge of the triangle cannot be a straight line - it has to be s steep curve!


While natural, the pyramid metaphor is also severely restricting. The choice of chart form has unexpected consequences.



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