Less ink, more think

Occasionally I am asked to give a lecture on how to draw good graphs. While I am always tempted to drone on interminably about abstract principles such as minimalism, balance, and consistency, I have discovered that it is much more fun to criticize bad graphs, and to show how they can be improved. But how to quire a truly bad graph? Easy! Just use the defaults in Microsoft Excel!

Here is an actual example of a graph drawn with those defaults. The data are fictitious, but the ugliness is breathtakingly real. It is sometimes said (unfairly) that engineers lack all sense of graphical design, but I think they must have hired specialists to create something so painfully wrong. vss2011workshop.010 But what specifically is wrong, and how can we make it better? Michelangelo once said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  So here too we will chip away at the obscuring excess, to reveal the beauty that Microsoft tried to hide.

First of all, what purpose is served by the heavy black rectangle that surrounds the graph? It serves two purposes: 1) to obscure useful information, and 2) to waste ink. Let’s remove it.


Better, but still bad. Next we note that the quantity being plotted is identified in three separate places: the vertical axis label, a title above the plot, and a key to the left. Is this really necessary? I think not. Lets get rid of two of them. Of course a key can be useful when several quantities are plotted together, but not when there is only one. Likewise labels above a plot have their uses, but should be avoided when they are redundant with other information, such as the axis label. We remove the key and the title. Apart from reducing clutter, this substantially increases the area available for the useful parts of the graph.


Now we ask the question: what purpose is served by the gray background? It serves two purposes: 1) to reduce the contrast and thus visibility of the data points, and 2) to waste ink. Get rid of it!


Aaah…so much more cheerful and relaxing to look at! But a few troubling questions remain. For example, what purpose is served by those shadows behind each data point? Do they indicate some exciting three dimensional aspect to the data? Of course not. But they do serve two purposes: 1) to render ambiguous the actual locations of the data points, and 2) to waste ink! Please people, can all just agree to never, never, use little shadows to suggest that our data are floating above the page? Thank you. The corrected graph is below. We have removed the shadows and also changed the diamonds to discs for the very important reasons that 1) they are simpler, and 2) I like them better.


Next we note that graphs are usually employed to show a pattern or trend. This pattern is not communicated well by a set of individual points floating out there, each an island, entire of itself. Only connect! A line drawn between the points aids enormously in conveying the visual sense of the data.


Next we correct an obvious (except to the Microsoft designers) flaw: the axis number labels running through the middle of the graph. We move them where they belong: to the axis, outside the graph.


Now we are getting somewhere. It almost looks ok. But we can do better. Gridlines can serve a purpose – for example, to let the reader easily judge approximate values – but there is never a reason for them to be dark and heavy, and to mask the useful information in the figure. Lighten up! In fact, the gridlines should generally be as light as possible, and still be visible. In this example, we make one gridline a bit darker than the others, to identify the y = 0 line.

vss2011workshop.018Now we see that the data really stand out. But we can do better still. What remains to distract the eye from the data? Well we could try removing the gridlines altogether, and then there is no need for the top and right borders of the frame.


Next we ask: what is the purpose of the bold font on the axis labels? Of course, it is to waste ink. Using a bold font for your labels is like writing your emails in all upper case. It is the digital equivalent of shouting. Don’t do it. Use your indoor voice.


And finally (yes, finally) we can reduce the line weight of the remaining axes. All we really need is enough weight to see them, and note their positions.


Thus we arrive at our final graph. It is not particularly exciting, but the data are clear, the trends are evident, and there is little to distract the eye from the essential information. Clearly, not all graphs are this simple, and there are often reasonable justifications for more elaborate presentations. But it is often a good idea to start with the simplest possible presentation, and elaborate from there. 

We conclude with the motto of this presentation, and indeed of this entire blog:

“Less ink, more think.”

Smile, and the world smiles with you

Perhaps the most potent weapon in the graphing arsenal is the contour. Our eye and brain are designed to appreciate edges between light and dark, or lines that mark a border. We instantly appreciate the connectedness of points along a contour, and we also appreciate the shape of the contour, and its trajectory. This is why it is so easy to display trends by plotting a collection of points and connecting them with a contour.

But like any powerful weapon, it can be misused. For example, by displaying a contour where there are no data! This seems pretty obvious, but it has escaped the chart designers at CNBC-TV. For those of you unfamiliar with this outlet, it is the leading cable business news channel worldwide. To their credit, they rely heavily on graphs. I recently clocked a random one-minute segment and counted six graphs. Most of their charts, naturally enough, show trends over time in financial data such as stock prices and corporate earnings.

Here is a chart from a recent edition of “The Call,” a morning business program on CNBC-TV. In many respects it is an unremarkable, even commendable graph. But wait: what is that curious smile-shaped shadow that extends across the entire graph? Is it some theoretical curve? Some baseline curve against which to compare the lofty performance of gold? Perhaps a projection of some sort?

To investigate further, we look at  second graph, showing the less impressive performance of Microsoft. Hmmmm…same smile. In fact, it turns out, this smile is superimposed on every single graph shown on “The Call.”

Of course, what we are looking at is an egregious example of what is politely called “decoration,” and less politely called “background crap.” Background crap is always bad, because it masks the visibility of the important information. In this case, the background is particularly pernicious because the trend of the pointless contour competes with the trend of the contour we should be perceiving: the trend of the data.

Indeed one wonders whether a more nefarious scheme is involved. Perhaps the chart designers are not clueless, but devious, and actually trying to bias our perception. Note that the curve declines (so sad…) but then recovers (yes!) Perhaps this smile is just that: a smiley face, meant to lift our spirits whatever the trajectory of the actual investment considered. All will be well; things go down, but then they come back up. Smile, and the world smiles with you. This is consistent with the generic optimism about all things financial that is part of the CNBC-TV culture.

More likely, a “graphic designer” was called upon to juice up the visual appeal of the graphs on the show. What was really needed here was a “graph designer.” But that job, however essential in our data-driven world, has yet to be invented.

Lesson: Don’t put meaningless contours in the background of your graph.

Reference: The Call, CNBC TV, 10/27/10 “Barrick Gold CEO on Earnings,” “Driving MSFT’s Growth.”

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