Tag Archives: information design

Infographic on Commuter Volumes Across Different CIties

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 3.14.05 PMI saw this article on the Future of Daily Travel, part of the Good Cities Project.  The slightly-larger-than thumbnail sized infographic seemed intriguing.  So I bookmarked the page so I could come back to it later when I had the chance to really dig into it.

So many things going for it!  2.5D isometrics, used as graphic, colors, use of different types of transportation, use of XY space.  I couldn’t wait to get to it.

What a disappointment when I finally had a chance to look into it!

Any graphic has to be relatively easy to interpret.  The best allow you to “start easy” and get some initial “aha!”s, and then dig deeper, like some fine piece of art.  It’s OK to challenge and stretch your audience, but the payoff has to be there.  The opposite of this is to have the audience think, “is that it?”.  Or to make them feel dumb (I discuss this in a separate blog post).

It took me a while to realize that the icons (sprites for boats, cars, London double-decker buses, trains, etc.) had no meaning.  When you have something that take up that much room and color, it has to mean something.  It turns out that the LENGTH of the transportation does matter… BUT the location in XY space does not matter.  Or if it does, I can’t figure out the meaning.

Does the location of the person with the “Cost per Commuter” matter?  I dunno.  The # is nice, but there’s no way to compare it across the cities.  Maybe there is… I can’t tell.

Also, I got lost in the 2 colored lines per city.  Sure, most of the transport requires two line in the real world… is that what we’re trying to show?

There’s a lot of info here, and it still draws you in.  But I found it difficult to filter out what was informative and what was just cute.

What’s the “informative to cute” ratio in your graphics?

Bubble Charts — What does the size mean?

A few weeks back, there was a short article in the WSJ about 3M‘s recent acquisitions.  A very prominent bubble chart accompanied the article (in both print and on-line).

I generally like bubble charts,  It’s an easy way to show several dimensions.  Done well, it’s an efficient way to packing lots of useful info into a small space.  We tend to associate the size of the bubble with some magnitude.  In addition, you can use color and place the bubbles on a x-y graph.  With “size”, “x”, “y” and “color”, you get 4 dimensions on a chart.  Not bad… if you can keep it from getting out of hand.

For the article in question, using a bubble chart makes sense.  The punchline is something like, “wow, look at the size of the acquisitions!”  The tagline accompanying the graph is “Three Deals in Two Weeks.”

From Edward Tufte‘s class and personal experience, I have learned that a good graphic “tells a story” instead of only showing numbers.  Graphics should be constructed to make intuitive sense relatively quickly, and if possible, draw the audience in for more exploration.

Which is why I was disappointed in the three green bubbles for this article.  First, the only thing the graphic tells me is that there are three acquisitions that are being graphed.  Are there more acquisitions before this week or perhaps others that may be a candidate?  Also, it might be nice to have some sort of anchor.  For example, if we had a larger circle represent 3M’s annual revenue, or the value of all acquisitions in the five years prior to these three, a competitor… something to compare to.  If the punchline is indeed, “look at the size” or “look how many in such a short time”, maybe we could have placed them on some timeline.  Finally, a close look at the numbers are misleading.  If Arizant is a $810MM acquisition, why is the $943MM Cogent acquisition a smaller bubble?

Reading through the article (and a subsequent email exchange with WSJ) confirms that the Cogent bubble size is based on $430MM, the amount that represents the actual cost, taking into Cogent’s cash reserves.  I am told that the explanation was cut out in the graphic.  Maybe we could have had concentric or internal tangential circles, the larger one showing $810MM, and the smaller one showing $430MM.

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.