Two recent infographic fails you ought to know about

A couple of charting debacles popped up this week of which you might want to take note.


POSITIVE VS. NEGATIVE SPACE

First, Reuters moved this fever chart showing the number of gun deaths in Florida going up after the state enacted its “stand your ground” law in 2005.

Just one little problem: The artist — for some unknown reason — elected to build the chart upside down from the usual way a fever chart is drawn.

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Meaning the chart appears to show the number of gun deaths going down… if you focus on the white territory and consider the red to be the background of the chart.

After a lively discussion on a number of forums — most notably at Business Insider — a reader volunteered to flip the chart right-side around for clarity’s sake.

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Is that better? Most folks seem to think it is.

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Three important rules about infographics that I’m making up right here:

Rule 1: A graphic must be clear. If it’s not clear, then it’s not doing its job and should probably be put out of its misery.

Rule 2: It’s OK for a graphic to offer the reader a longer, more complicated view that requires more time spent observing a piece. But that’s not typically the job of a freakin’ one-column graphic.

Rule 3: Occasionally, it’s OK to flip a graphic upside down. But you’d better have a damned good reason for doing it. Other than, y’know, “I thought it’d look cool.”

This graphic fails all three: It’s not immediately clear — at least to many readers — and it’s a small graphic. So it has no business getting fancy. If the artist had a reason for turning it upside down, that reason eludes me.

Read more about the debate over this piece at…


UPSIDE DOWN YOU’RE TURNING ME

Full disclosure: I feel a little guilty criticizing this piece because I myself did something funky last week: I turned a map upside down:

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That ran in the middle of a page about John Steinbeck‘s the Grapes of Wrath. The intent was to show the route the fictional Joad family took in the book from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to what they hoped would be a better life here in Southern California.

But vI really wanted to get those two pictures in there, which needed to read from left to right. I wanted those to sit atop my map showing the journey. I tried mapping it the usual way, but it was difficult to get the reader to stop — and then read this one segment of my page from right to left — and then resume reading the rest of the page from left to right.

This would take quite a bit more vertical space and some very careful use of labels. And I was plum out of vertical space.

So I elected to flop the map upside down. My logic: This time, it was more important to follow the narrative — to feel the twists and turns in the Joads’ journey — than to take in the geographical details of the trip. If the upside-down map was vetoed, Plan B would have been to kill the map and run the list of cities in a timeline-like format. There was just one problem with that: I already had a timeline on the page, just above the map:

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We debated this and decided I was right to flip the map — This time. I can’t imagine too many times we’d ever want to run a map with the north arrow pointing down.

And, y’know, perhaps we did the wrong thing. Another editor might have made a different choice.

But the point is: We made a conscious decision here to let the map support the narrative. I don’t know what point Reuters was making with its upside-down fever chart. Whatever it was, it’s not apparent to me.

It’s OK to make unusual choices. Just make sure your data is clear, your story is clear and readers don’t walk way from your piece puzzled as hell.


WHEN IS A MAP NOT A MAP?

This seems like a good time to present the other infographics debacle this week: This one is by NBC News.

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Oh, dear. I was just talking about using a map when the map wasn’t the most important element.

What we have here is another fever chart, but this one has been pasted inside a map of the U.S.  This has a number of effects that harm the greater good we do by presenting the data in the first place:

Fever charts (and pie charts and bar charts and most other charts, for that matter) are all about showing proportions. If the proportions get screwed up — by, say, varying the widths of your bars or by covering up part of the chart — then the reader can’t make the visual comparisons you’re asking her to make.

And that’s the case here: We see territory marked as “Asian” in the upper left of the chart and also at the upper right. But where is that set of data in 2010? I’m guessing it’s there, but it’s hidden outside the area of the map.

Rule 4: If you’re going to hide important parts of your chart, then your chart is no good. And, yes, it should be put out of its misery.

The data is displayed over a map. What is the artist trying to tell us? Where white people live in the U.S.? That Hispanics only live near Canada and Asians in Washington State and New England?

No, the map is merely a decorative element. It has nothing at all to do with the data.

Rule 5: If you don’t need an element to tell your story, then eliminate it. Or I will.

Rule 6: If your decorative element gets in the way of your story, then not only do I demand you eliminate it, I also insist you come over here so I can smack you upside your head.

Rule 7: Don’t use a map if you’re not telling a story that includes some type of data that needs geographical context.

Oh, and don’t forget this last one:

Rule 8: Don’t tilt a map or turn it upside down. Not unless you have a good reason.

Go here to read more about the perils of rotating maps.

Thanks to Nicole Bogdas and Jim McBee for bringing these two graphics to my attention this week.

Johannesburg daily Beeld switches to a compact for Saturdays

A couple of weeks ago, the Portland Oregonian converted from a broadsheet to a “compact” format.

Just three days later — on April 5 — one of the South African papers I worked with did the same thing.

This is Beeld, the daily Afrikaans-language paper of Johannesburg. On the left is the front page from Saturday, March 29. On the right is April 5′s relaunch front.

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The sizes are about as good as I can approximate them here. The page width shrinks from 90 picas to 64 picas.

The idea is to make the Saturday paper stand out as a special edition that contains quit a bit of feature-like reading material and to give it some shelflife. The nameplate now reverses out of a red box and the cover becomes a magazine-like page with a lead photo and refers to stories inside. Stories no longer appear on the front.

This was the April 12 front page — the second week with the new look.

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The commentary page features a smaller editorial, one column and one cartoon — this one is about sports — a quote of the week and lots of posts culled from Facebook.

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The sports pages always used a lot of nice graphics from the folks I once tutored over at Graphics24. Looks like the new format means a little more space for them, perhaps.

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The intro to this piece on Augusta National makes me laugh.

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It says, roughly:

The Masters in America has a history that goes back so far far that one wonders whether Abe Lincoln didn’t participate in it.

Um, no. If there’s one place on Earth where Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have been welcome, it’s Georgia. Trust me on this.

The name of this segment of the paper is called “Relax.” This particular story is a travel piece on Peru.

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This one observes the 20th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain.

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This technology page compares Amazon — yes, it serves Africa — with its South African-based equivalent, Kalahari.com.

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Beeld always included a tabloid insert — they call it a “supplement” — with reader-oriented features stories. That’s not changing, despite the conversion of the entire paper to a more tabloid-like format.

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This April 12 spread is an interview with sometimes-controversial radio show host Gareth Cliff, who recently announced he was leaving popular radio station 5FM.

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Thanks to my old Media24 friend Arlene Prinsloo for sending the PDFs.

Because of all the time I’ve spent teaching at and consulting for Media24, I’ve posted quite a few pages from Beeld over the years. In case you’re curious…

  • Dec. 4, 2010: A fun first-person graphic [that I did] for the business page
  • Dec. 17, 2010: I told you it’s been raining here in Johannesburg
  • Feb. 11, 2011: Tomorrow’s front page today
  • Feb. 18, 2011: Fulfilling every stereotype of South Africa for you folks back home…
  • March 11, 2011: How Johannesburg’s Beeld is playing the earthquake/tsunami story
  • March 26, 2011: South African papers on their team’s cricket World Cup loss
  • May 11, 2011: A little contest horn tootin’ here…
  • May 18, 2011: Municipal election day coverage from South Africa
  • Nov. 22, 2011: South African newspapers observe ‘Black Tuesday’
  • Dec. 6, 2011: Beeld of Johannesburg, South Africa, redesigns
  • July 30, 2012: A Johannesburg paper celebrates Olympic gold for a South African swimmer
  • Aug. 1, 2012: Olympic gold medal elation on South African front pages
  • Aug. 8, 2012: There’s no front pages like snow front pages [This was during my last trip over there]
  • Aug. 12, 2012: How South African papers covered last week’s disastrous mine protest
  • Feb. 20, 2013: How South African visual journalists are covering the ongoing Oscar Pistorius story
  • Dec. 6, 2013: A sampling of Nelson Mandela front pages

Abu Dhabi’s the National publishes all-photo edition

The National newspaper of Abu Dhabi celebrated its sixth anniversary Thursday with a special edition that celebrated visuals.

Special as in: All photos and graphics and no stories.

National editor-in-chief Mohammed Al Otaiba wrote Wednesday…

…a newspaper is not all words. We are visual creatures and pictures taken by talented photographers have the power to capture in a single image the absolute essence of a story, be it a heart-rending tragedy or a joyous triumph of the human spirit.

Tomorrow, The National turns six. Tomorrow the pen stops. Tomorrow we will show the news and let you, our readers, share with us what we see.

Thursday’s front page featured a montage of various images.

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That little blurb in the center tells readers they can still read the narrative that goes with today’s stories, but they’ll have to visit the web site or use their mobile devices to scan the QR codes on each page.

I’d love to show you a few inside pages. But you must subscribe to view the paper’s e-edition to see them. I failed to find anyone who could slip me a few PDFs.

In fact, there’s a lot going on in Abu Dhabi at the moment. Both Fast and Furious 7 and Star Wars Episode 7 are filming there, the National reports.

Birthdays for Friday, April 18

Here’s wishing the happiest of birthdays to a pair of wonderful visual journalists…

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Dave Gulliver is media relations coordinator for the New College of Florida in Sarasota. A 1988 graduate of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., David earned a master’s in government from Syracuse University before entering journalism. He spent four years at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News and then five years at the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, Va., as a reporter and database analyst. He moved to the Herald-Tribune of Sarasota, Fla., in 2006 but left in 2009 to create a nonprofit news site. He did freelance work for a while and joined the New College 15 months ago.

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David Holub is design editor of the Durango Herald in Colorado. A 1999 graduate of the University of Northern Colorado, David spent two years as a sportswriter and copy editor for the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune and then a year as a sportswriter for the St. Joseph News Press in Missouri before becoming a designer at the Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller-Times. After a brief stay at the Miami Herald, David moved to the Hartford (Conn.) Courant in 2006 as a sports designer. He left the Courant in 2010, earned a master’s degree in professional writing at Western Connecticut State University and taught rhetoric and writing at the University of Hartford through the holidays, when he moved west. For three-and-a-half years, he edited Kugelmass: A Journal of Literary Humor, which came out twice a year. Find his portfolio here. David turns 36 today.

Dave and Dave share a birthday with actors America Georgina Ferrera, Melissa Joan Catherine Hart, Jane Leeves, Eric James McCormack, Frederick Allan “Rick” Moranis, James Howard Woods, Eric Anthony Roberts, David John McDonald (better known as David Tennant), Maria Elena Bello, Hayley Catherine Rose Vixen Mills and Barbara Hale; actor-director Eli Raphael Roth; musician Leopold Anthony Stokowski; TV host Conan Christopher O’Brien; ventriloquist Jeff Dunham; TV personality Kourtney Mary Kardashian; sports greats José Miguel Cabrera Torres (baseball), Derrick Dewan Brooks (football) and Thomas “Tom” Sullivan (basketball coach); lawyer Clarence Seward Darrow and rock critic Robert Christgau.

In addition to Good Friday, today is Adult Autism Day, National Golf Day, National Columnists Day, Pet Owners Independence Day, National Amateur Radio Day and National Wear Your Pajamas to Work Day. Seriously.

Have an excellent birthday, you two! Best wishes!