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.
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.
Is that better? Most folks seem to think it is.
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…
- Andy Kirk‘s Visualizing Data
- Albero Cairo‘s The Functional Art
- In the comments of this story at Business Insider
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:
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:
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.
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.