Book Review: Visualizing with Text by Richard Brath

Richardbarth_bookcoverThe creative process is sometimes described in terms of diverge-converge cycles. The diverge step involves experimentation and rewards suspending disbelief, while excesses are curbed and concepts refined during the converge step. Richard Brath's just-released book Visualizing with Text is an important resource that expands our appreciation for the place of text in visual displays.

Books on data visualization fall into recognizable types, of which two popular ones are the style guide, such as Edward Tufte, Dona Wong, and Alberto Cairo, and the coding manual, such as Ben Fry (processing) and Hadley Wickham (ggplot, Shiny). Brath's volume belongs to neither of those - it reads more like an encyclopedic catalog of how text can be incorporated into charts and graphs. He challenges us to blow up our imaginative space for characters, words, sentences, paragraphs and prose. It is a valuable aid for the diverge step of our creative process.

In modern data visualization, text is treated as an accessory, frequently found in titles, labels, legends, footnotes or surrounding text. Brath wants us to elevate text to the starring attraction. Starting with baby steps, such as direct labeling of lines and objects, and coordinating colors between chart elements and words, he experiments with inserting text into unlikely crannies, not shying away from ideas that even he admits may be somewhat of a dead-end.

One of the more immediately useful examples is the use of text labels that hug the lines on a line chart, similar to how roads and rivers are labeled on maps. I wish all software developers implement this function without delay.


A more esoteric example is to replace these lines with small-size text, as Brath makes an analogy between sentences and lines.


I am still deciding if this is a gold mine or a minefield. It is thought-provoking nonetheless.

Finally, the book includes some flights of fancy, like this one:


The red superscripts are numeric codes for French departments (provinces), arranged in ascending order of a given metric, and placed in proportional distance within the prose!

The converge step is left to the reader, as Brath refrains from bullhorning his opinions about chart types, which is why readers should not expect a style guide. He includes many experimental graphics, and may provide the pros and cons of a form without registering a judgement.

Because many of these ideas have yet to enter the mainstream, we'd need to implement these ideas on our own, which is why readers will not find a coding manual. As mentioned above, even the simplest and least controversial tactic of directly labeling lines is not available in Excel, let alone text that hugs or replaces lines. (This proves Brath's point that our community has done text a disservice.) Other ideas explored in later chapters require such features as italicizing numeric proportions of a word, rather than the entire word.

Recently, text has become a mainstay of Big Data. Visualizing with Text is timely, relevant and provocative. It is also clearly written, and tightly organized. Chapter 13 neatly summarizes the key concepts that have appeared along the way. There are plenty of use cases, primarily derived from research or business. After reading this book, you'll revel in the new sandbox of text, and long to free yourself from the constraints of your tool.


I recommend that you get the paper copy of the book. I reviewed the electronic version, and what irony! As you may have guessed, the electronic version ruins the typesetting. On every page, certain paragraphs show up in tiny font that resist all attempts to magnify, making Brath's case that legibility is an important metric for text visualization. Some of the more unusual fonts are dropped. The images are too small, even when popped up.

[P.S. Richard has a webpage where he included larger images and some code.]

Whither the youth vote

The youth turnout is something that politicians and pundits bring up constantly when talking about the current U.S. presidential primaries. So I decided to look for the data. I found some data at the United States Election Project, a site maintained by Dr. Michael McDonald. The key chart is this one:


This is classic Excel.


Here is a quick fix:


The key to the fix is to recognize the structure of the data.

The sawtooth pattern displayed in the original chart does not convey any real trends - it's an artifact that many people only turn out for presidential elections. (As a result, the turnout during presidential election years is driven by the general election turnout.)

The age groups have an order so instead of four different colors, use a progressive color scheme. This is one of the unspoken rules about color usage in data visualization, featured in my Long Read article.


What do I learn from this turnout by age group chart?

Younger voters are much more invested in presidential elections than off-year elections. The youth turnout for presidential elections is double that for other years.

Participation increased markedly in the 2018 mid-term elections across all four age groups, reflecting the passion for or against President Donald Trump. This was highly unusual - and in fact, the turnout for that off-year is closer to the turnout of a presidential year election. Whether the turnout will stay at this elevated level is a big question for 2022!

For presidential elections, turnout has been creeping up over time for all age groups. But the increase in 2016 (Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump) was mild. The growth in participation is more noticable in the younger age groups, including in 2016.

Let's look at the relative jumps in 2018 (right side of the left chart). The younger the age group, the larger the jump. Turnout in the 18-29 group doubled to 32 percent. Turnout in the oldest age group increased by 20%, nothing to sneeze at but less impressive than in the younger age groups.

Why this is the case should be obvious. The 60+ age group has a ceiling. It's already at 60-70%; how much higher can it go? People at that age have many years to develop their preference for voting in elections. It would be hard to convince the holdouts (hideouts?) to vote.

The younger age groups are further from the ceiling. If you're an organizer, will you focus your energy on the 60% non-voting 18-29-years-old, or the 30% non-voting 60+ years-old? [This is the same question any business faces: do you win incremental sales from your more loyal customers, hoping they would spend even more, or your less loyal customers?]

For Democratic candidates, the loss in 2016 is hanging over them. Getting the same people to vote in 2020 as in 2016 is a losing hand. So, they need to expand the base somehow.

If you're a candidate like Joe Biden who relies on the 60+ year old bloc, it's hard to see where he can expand the base. Your advantage is that the core voter bloc is reliable. Your problem is that you don't have appeal to the younger age groups. So a viable path to winning in the general election has to involve flipping older Trump voters. The incremental ex-Trump voters have to offset the potential loss in turnout from younger voters.

If you're a candidate like Bernie Sanders who relies on the youth vote, you'd want to launch a get-out-the-vote effort aimed at younger voters. A viable path can be created by expanding the base through lifting the turnout rate of younger voters. The incremental young voters have to offset the fraction of the 60+ year old bloc who flip to Trump.







This Excel chart looks standard but gets everything wrong

The following CNBC chart (link) shows the trend of global car sales by region (or so we think).

Cnbc zh global car sales

This type of chart is quite common in finance/business circles, and has the fingerprint of Excel. After examining it, I nominate it for the Hall of Shame.


The chart has three major components vying for our attention: (1) the stacked columns, (2) the yellow line, and (3) the big red dashed arrow.

The easiest to interpret is the yellow line, which is labeled "Total" in the legend. It displays the annual growth rate of car sales around the globe. The data consist of annual percentage changes in car sales, so the slope of the yellow line represents a change of change, which is not particularly useful.

The big red arrow is making the point that the projected decline in global car sales in 2019 will return the world to the slowdown of 2008-9 after almost a decade of growth.

The stacked columns appear to provide a breakdown of the global growth rate by region. Looked at carefully, you'll soon learn that the visual form has hopelessly mangled the data.


What is the growth rate for Chinese car sales in 2006? Is it 2.5%, the top edge of China's part of the column? Between 1.5% and 2.5%, the extant of China's section? The answer is neither. Because of the stacking, China's growth rate is actually the height of the relevant section, that is to say, 1 percent. So the labels on the vertical axis are not directly useful to learning regional growth rates for most sections of the chart.

Can we read the vertical axis as global growth rate? That's not proper either. The different markets are not equal in size so growth rates cannot be aggregated by simple summing - they must be weighted by relative size.

The negative growth rates present another problem. Even if we agree to sum growth rates ignoring relative market sizes, we still can't get directly to the global growth rate. We would have to take the total of the positive rates and subtract the total of the negative rates.  


At this point, you may begin to question everything you thought you knew about this chart. Remember the yellow line, which we thought measures the global growth rate. Take a look at the 2006 column again.

The global growth rate is depicted as 2 percent. And yet every region experienced growth rates below 2 percent! No matter how you aggregate the regions, it's not possible for the world average to be larger than the value of each region.

For 2006, the regional growth rates are: China, 1%; Rest of the World, 1%; Western Europe, 0.1%; United States, -0.25%. A simple sum of those four rates yields 2%, which is shown on the yellow line.

But this number must be divided by four. If we give the four regions equal weight, each is worth a quarter of the total. So the overall average is the sum of each growth rate weighted by 1/4, which is 0.5%. [In reality, the weights of each region should be scaled to reflect its market size.]


tldr; The stacked column chart with a line overlay not only fails to communicate the contents of the car sales data but it also leads to misinterpretation.

I discussed several serious problems of this chart form: 

  • stacking the columns make it hard to learn the regional data

  • the trend by region takes a super effort to decipher

  • column stacking promotes reading meaning into the height of the column but the total height is meaningless (because of the negative section) while the net height (positive minus negative) also misleads due to presumptive equal weighting

  • the yellow line shows the sum of the regional data, which is four times the global growth rate that it purports to represent



PS. [12/4/2019: New post up with a different visualization.]

Webinar Wednesday


I'm delivering a quick-fire Webinar this Wednesday on how to make impactful data graphics for communication and persuasion. Registration is free, at this link.


In the meantime, I'm preparing a guest lecture for the Data Visualization class at Yeshiva University Sims School of Management. The goal of the lecture is to emphasize the importance of incorporating analytics into the data visualization process.

Here is the lesson plan:

  1. Introduce the Trifecta checkup (link) which is the general framework for effective data visualizations
  2. Provide examples of Type D data visualizations, i.e. graphics that have good production values but fail due to issues with the data or the analysis
  3. Hands-on demo of an end-to-end data visualization process
  4. Lessons from the demo including the iterative nature of analytics and visualization; and sketching
  5. Overview of basic statistics concepts useful to visual designers


Steel tariffs, and my new dataviz seminar

I am developing a new seminar aimed at business professionals who want to improve their ability to communicate using charts. I want any guidance to be tool-agnostic, so that attendees can implement them using Excel if that’s their main charting software. Over the 12+ years that I’ve been blogging, certain ideas keep popping up; and I have collected these motifs and organized them for the seminar. This post is about a recent chart that brings up a few of these motifs.

This chart has been making the rounds in articles about the steel tariffs.


The chart shows the Top 10 nations that sell steel to the U.S., which together account for 78% of all imports. 

The chart shows a few signs of design. These things caught my eye:

  1. the pie chart on the left delivers the top-line message that 10 countries account for almost 80% of all U.S. steel imports
  2. the callout gives further information about which 10 countries and how much each nation sells to the U.S. This is a nice use of layering
  3. on the right side, progressive tints of blue indicate the respective volumes of imports

On the negative side of the ledger, the chart is marred by three small problems. Each of these problems concerns inconsistency, which creates confusion for readers.

  1. Inconsistent use of color: on the left side, the darker blue indicates lower volume while on the right side, the darker blue indicates higher volume
  2. Inconsistent coding of pie slices: on the right side, the percentages add up to 78% while the total area of the pie is 100%
  3. Inconsistent scales: the left chart carrying the top-line message is notably smaller than the right chart depicting the secondary message. Readers’ first impression is drawn to the right chart.

Easy fixes lead to the following chart:



The central idea of the new dataviz seminar is that there are many easy fixes that are often missed by the vast majority of people making Excel charts. I will present a stack of these motifs. If you're in the St. Louis area, you get to experience the seminar first. Register for a spot here.

Send this message to your friends and coworkers in the area. Also, contact me if you'd like to bring this seminar to your area.


I also tried the following design, which brings out some other interesting tidbits, such as that Canada and Brazil together sell the U.S. about 30% of its imported steel, the top 4 importers account for about 50% of all steel imports, etc. Color is introduced on the chart via a stylized flag coloring.







The state of the art of interactive graphics

Scott Klein's team at Propublica published a worthy news application, called "Hell and High Water" (link) I took some time taking in the experience. It's a project that needs room to breathe.

The setting is Houston Texas, and the subject is what happens when the next big hurricane hits the region. The reference point was Hurricane Ike and Galveston in 2008.

This image shows the depth of flooding at the height of the disaster in 2008.


The app takes readers through multiple scenarios. This next image depicts what would happen (according to simulations) if something similar to Ike plus 15 percent stronger winds hits Galveston.


One can also speculate about what might happen if the so-called "Mid Bay" solution is implemented:


This solution is estimated to cost about $3 billion.


I am drawn to this project because the designers liberally use some things I praised in my summer talk at the Data Meets Viz conference in Germany.

Here is an example of hover-overs used to annotate text. (My mouse is on the words "Nassau Bay" at the bottom of the paragraph. Much of the Bay would be submerged at the height of this scenario.)


The design has a keen awareness of foreground/background issues. The map uses sparse static labels, indicating the most important landmarks. All other labels are hidden unless the reader hovers over specific words in the text.

I think plotting population density would have been more impactful. With the current set of labels, the perspective is focused on business and institutional impact. I think there is a missed opportunity to highlight the human impact. This can be achieved by coding population density into the map colors. I believe the colors on the map currently represent terrain.


This is a successful interactive project. The technical feats are impressive (read more about them here). A lot of research went into the articles; huge amounts of details are included in the maps. A narrative flow was carefully constructed, and the linkage between the text and the graphics is among the best I've seen.

Enhanced tables, and supercharged spreadsheets with in-cell tech

Old-timer Chris P. sent me to this Bloomberg article about Vanguard ETFs and low-cost funds (link). The article itself is interesting, and I will discuss it on the sister blog some time in the future.

Chris is impressed with this table included with the article:


This table indeed presents the insight clearly. Those fund sectors in which Vanguard does not compete have much higher costs than the fund sectors in which Vanguard is a player. The author calls this the "Vanguard effect."

This is a case where finding a visual design to beat this table is hard.

For a certain type of audience, namely financial, the spreadsheet is like rice or pasta; you simply can't live without it. The Bloomberg spreadsheet does one better: the bands of blue contrast with the white cells, which neatly divides those funds into two groups.

If you use spreadsheets a lot, you should definitely look into in-cell charts. Perhaps Tufte's sparkline is the most famous but use your imagination. I also wish vendors would support in-cell charts more eagerly.

Here is a vision of what in-cell technology can do with the above spreadsheet. (The chart is generated in R.)




Statistics report raises mixed emotions

It's gratifying to live through the incredible rise of statistics as a discipline. In a recent report by the American Statistical Association (ASA), we learned that enrollment at all levels (bachelor, master and doctorate) has exploded in the last 5-10 years, as "Big Data" gather momentum.

But my sense of pride takes a hit while looking at the charts that appear in the report. These graphs demonstrate again the hegemony of Excel defaults in the world of data visualization.

Here are all five charts organized in a panel:


Chart #5 (bottom right) catches the eye because it is the only chart with two lines instead of three. You then flip to the prior page to find the legend. The legend tells you the red line is Bachelor and the green line is PhD. That seems wrong, unless biostats departments do not give out Master degrees.

This is confirmed by chart #2, where we find the blue line (Master) hugging zero.

Presumably the designer removed the blue line from chart #5 because the low counts mean that it fluctuates wildly between 0 and 100 percent and so disrupts the visual design. But the designer forgets to tell readers why the blue line is missing.


It turns out the article itself contradicts all of the above:

For biostatistics degrees, for which NCES started providing data specifically in 1992, master’s degrees track the overall increase from 2010– 2014 at 47%...The number of undergraduate degrees in biostatistics remains below 30.

Asa_enrollment_legendIn other words, the legend is mislabeled. The blue line represents Bachelor while the red line, Master. (The error was noticed after the print edition went out because the online version has the correct legend.)


There is another mystery. Charts #2, #3, and #5, all dealing with biostats, have time starting from 1992, while Charts #1 and #4 starts from 1987. The charts aren't lined up in a way that would allow comparisons across time.

Similarly, the vertical scale of each chart is different (aside from Charts #3 and #4). This design choice impairs comparison across charts.

In the article, it is explained that 1992 was when the agency started collecting data about biostatistics degrees. Between 1987 and 1992, were there no biostatistics majors? were biostatistics majors lumped into the counts of statistics majors? It's hard to tell.


While Excel is a powerful tool that has served our community well, its flexibility is often a source of errors. The remedy to this problem is to invest ample time in over-riding pretty much every default decision in the system.

For example:


This chart, a reproduction of Chart #1 above, was entirely produced in Excel.







Observing Rosling’s Current Visual Style

On the sister blog, I wrote about Hans Rosling’s recent presentation in New York (link). I noted that Rosling has apparently simplified his visual palette.

Rosling is best known as the developer of the Gapminder tool, used to visualize global social statistics data collected by national statistical agencies. I wrote favorably about this tool in a series of posts (link). Gapminder made popular the moving bubble chart, although not the only graphical form present.


These animated bubble charts also made Rosling a YouTube star (See here.)


In last week’s presentation, Rosling only showed one moving bubble chart. The rest of his graphics are noticeably simpler, something that anyone can produce on Excel or Powerpoint. Here is one example:


I’m particularly impressed by a simple sequence of charts in which Rosling explains the demographic changes the world is expecting to see in the next 50 to 100 years.


This is an enhanced area chart. Each slice of area is subdivided into stick figures so that an axis for population counts becomes unnecessary.

Instead, the reader sees two useful dimensions: region of the world, and age group.

How the population ages as it grows is the feature story and the effect of aging is ingeniously portrayed as layers. This becomes apparent as Rosling lets time roll forward, and the layers literally walk off the page. (Unfortunately, I couldn't capture each step fast enough.)


 (This photo courtesy of Daniel Vadnais.)

When Rosling showed the 2085 projection, we find that the entire rectangle has filled up, so the world population has definitely grown, roughly by 30 percent. The growth happens by filling up of adults; the total number of children has not changed. This is one of the key insights from recent demographic data. The first photo above shows something remarkable: the fertility rate in Asian countries has plunged to about the same level of developed countries already.


This set of charts is unusually effective. It represents another level of simplification in visual means. At the same time, the message is sharpened.

As I reported the other day (link), Rosling does not believe modern tools have improved data analysis. This talk which utilized simple tools is a good demonstration of his point.