Be on the Lookout for Sparklines!

What are sparklines?

Although it’s not clear who was the first to use them, Edward Tufte gets the credit for introducing the term “sparklines” to describe these bite-sized graphics.  I suspect that we’ll all see more of them in the future, now that Microsoft Excel 2010 has these built into the graphing features.

You have probably seen these before.  I see them when I check out my stocks at yahoo finance.  Tiny charts under the “Intraday” column tell me if the price is up or down from previous close as well as how they have changed throughout the day.  Since it’s a time chart where the entire x-axis is the trading day, I also get a sense of how much of the trading day is left.  It’s got a lot of data packed into a small space.

The three key elements of a sparkline are:

  • data intensity
    (lots of data instead of having a few data points, even if the data is not labeled)
  • graphical simplicity
    (no extraneous “chartjunk“, text or labels)
  • sized to fit in with exiting text
    (there is no need for the eye to travel far from the text or other information)

That’s it!  It’s wonderfully simple and refreshing.  There’s a lot you give up, of course, since we may want to know the values associated with the axes, or if we see them in small multiples, we will want to know if the scales are comparable across the multiples.  But we gain so much in the simplicity.

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