Saturday, February 15, 2020

Bad Charting Part 1: Charts vs. Infographics

In this post I'll share tips on responsible charting and how to avoid common pitfalls that can result in misleading business graphics. We'll do that by looking at examples of poor charts and pointing out the principles that were violated. In this first post, we'll make the distinction between charts and infographics.

A Bad Chart about Why Charts are Bad

Charts: They're All Around Us

Charts are all around us. Many of us rely on them and create them in our work. Dashboards abound in business and billions of dollars are spent annually on business intelligence products. Charts are a regular output of stock markets, scientists, researchers, statisticians, and governments. They're all over social media, web sites, and television. Charts are part of life.

Just as publishing came to the masses via word processing, desktop publishing, and blogging the same thing is happening with charting. Charts can now be created in just a few clicks from office productivity software, charting apps, and cloud services. Marketing campaigns frequently leverage infographics in their messaging.

There are good charts, bad charts, and pretender charts. We live in a time where honest communication is in short supply. There's a lot of deliberate misinformation online and charts are often a vehicle for delivering it. An even larger problem is charts that are unintentionally misleading. That comes from people who don't know the fundamentals of good charting, don't understand their source data well, or just copy-and-paste from somewhere else. These days, charts are created for the most trivial subjects or to express humor in social media posts.

I wonder why that would be...

Just What is a Chart Anyway?

Before we go any further we should define what a chart (or graph) is.

A chart is a data visualization. That is, a graphical representation of some numerical data. It's not possible to create a good chart from poor data, so starting with data you understand is critical. You have a duty to select appropriate and complete source data. You have a duty to portray that data responsibly. You have a duty to provide reference to the source data.

A chart is also a type of content, which means you will make decisions that affect how the chart is perceived by viewers. Your chart tells a story or carries a message, even if you don't intend it to. Be aware that some readers will take your content at face value.

A chart is also data reduction, which obligates you to reduce the data in a responsible way. Your viewer should understand how the data was arrived at.

Finally, a chart is a picture. We all know a picture is worth 1,000 words. Your visual choices imply underlying information. The emotion your chart triggers in your viewer is strong than any figures on the page or text.

Charting, then, is a great responsibility. You are communicating about data that matters greatly to somebody. It needs to be truthful and clear if you want to maintain a reputation for trustworthiness. As we shall see, not everyone takes these responsibilities seriously.

Charts are not Infographics

One of the reasons we have rampant problems with charts is the confusion between a business chart and an infographic. An infographic is "a collection of imagery, charts, and minimal text that gives an easy-to-understand overview of a topic." Infographics often contain charts, and they simply aren't created with the same rigor that business charts are. Let's look at a chart from an infographic:

The above chart is so bad it made Business Insider's list of the Worst Charts of All Time. We can note some deficiencies in this chart:
  1. It has no title, but we can intuit we are being shown sales revenue for fast food restaurants. 
  2. The Y axis isn't labelled, but we can intuit billions of dollars from the chart value labels. 
  3. Columns are replaced with corporate logos, and that's a problem. Look at Burger King ($11.3B in sales) vs. McDonald's ($41B). Is the McD logo 4 times the BK logo? No, it's more like 12 times the area. The "clever" use of logos is a bad idea because it breaks the visual contract with the chart reader.
  4. The data set isn't identified. This clearly isn't all restaurants but we aren't told the criteria for the ones that are included. 
  5. The time frame isn't identified either. Which year's sales revenue are we being shown?
  6. The chart values are an apples and oranges comparison, because the country of Afghanistan is included in the mix.
Below you can see our chart is part of a larger infographic from Princeton University. Now we can see the chart's purpose in support of a message about how Starbucks and McDonald's are global hubs that connect some of the earth's wealthiest and poorest countries. The deficiencies we noted would likely be explained away by the designer as justified in getting the message out in a compelling way. That's the problem with infographics: they're a marketing tool, not a business communication tool. They each have their place but you don't want to confuse them.

Here's another infographic below, this one showing the mobile games market volume by language. Note the sizes of the bubbles. Chinese is $15B and English is $8B, but the Chinese bubble is not 2 times the area of the English bubble, it's closer to 4 because both height and width were multiplied by the 2. We saw this same error earlier with the use of logos and here it is again. The makers of infographics are usually far more concerned with getting your attention than accuracy.


Here are some of the important differences between a business chart and an infographic:

An infographic is often designed to push a message and includes data that supports the message. A business chart has a message too, but there's a difference. In your business chart, you had some reason to show the data you did in the way you did. There may well be an important revelation you want to communicate but the viewer may discover additional insights from the data being visualized. The business chart doesn't force a conclusion, it says "look at this. look what's happening here."

Don't make the mistake of using an infographic when you should have a business chart. In an infographic, the excitement comes from the design and messaging. In a business chart, the excitement comes from the data.

Everyone Says So

Why are infographics so popular? Well, one reason commonly given is shown (fittingly) by the infographics below: the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text!

You'll find thousands of infographics and designer/marketing web sites promoting this fact. Now that you've learned this fun fact, you can forget it, because it's not true!


This is a big, big problem today. People see something interesting, especially something that supports the story they want to promote, and they pass it on without a second thought. Using or passing on unverified information has no place in business or in your charts.

When is a Chart Warranted?

Before you embark on creating a chart, ask yourself whether you have a good reason for having one. If the only reason for your chart is to have something pretty, I suggest you reconsider. Charts do make sense in your documents and presentations when any of the following are true:
  • The chart will help your audience understand the data better .
  • When the shape of the data contains your message.
  • When you want to highlight or reveal something that would not be evident from a table of figures or wall of text.
  • When the chart accompanies and augments a narrative or data set (not replaces it).
A chart should never be a replacement for its source data. Either include that original data or provide a link to it.

Characteristics of a Good Chart

A good chart will have these characteristics:
  1. Accurately show facts.
  2. Grab the reader's attention.
  3. Show trends or changes.
  4. Be clear and easy to read.
  5. Have a title and axis labels.
  6. Identify units for values.
  7. Use colors to show differences but not rely solely on color.
  8. Use white space around graphic elements and text for readability. 
  9. Follow established conventions.
In Part 2, we'll look at how to choose the right chart type and what happens when you get it wrong.


Unknown said...

It says that a Business Chart is based on a "Partial Data Set" and an Infographic is based on a "Complete Data Set". Is this correct? I would have expected that to be swapped.

David Pallmann said...

Thanks! corrected.