Good Examples of Bad Charts: Chart Junk from a Surprising Source

by Charley Kyd on April 5, 2012

For years, I’ve written that we Excel users should create “magazine-quality” charts for our reports and analyses.

However, we must be very careful of the magazines and other publications we emulate.

The Wall Street Journal currently is my favorite source of great chart examples. Most of its charts and tables are very well designed. The Economist magazine also has been a great source. Both Business Week and Fortune used to be great sources, but now publish very few charts.

Unfortunately, if their special issue “The World in 2012″ is an indication of things to come, The Economist magazine should be moved to the do-not-emulate list.

Unlike Business Week and Fortune, however, The Economist still is instructive for Excel chart-builders. But now, that magazine teaches us what not to do.

In the figure above, for example, the chart compares the price of gold to the yield on bonds. For a typical reader of The Economist, that kind of information is really interesting.

But notice the terrible choice the magazine made when they displayed that interesting data. Graphic artists at The Economist camouflaged their data with a distracting image of a coin. Also, they made their charts unusually large, and their fonts unusually small. This is why the fonts are nearly microscopic when I shrink the charts down to normal size in these illustrations.

This gray chart, which shows the price of oil during the past five years, is similar to the one above.

Like the first chart, this one shows data that should interest most readers. And as they did with the first chart, the magazine added visual noise to the figure.

Do you regularly read the newspaper while kids are arguing, dogs are barking, the TV is blaring, and a cat is scratching your leg? If so, this chart should make you feel very much at home.

Here’s another example of chart junk that acts as camouflage.

If you work at it, you can concentrate on the column plots while ignoring the workers and cranes that clutter this chart.

The problem with adding such decoration is that it forces us readers to work much harder than we should to discover the meaning hidden in the data.

Irrelevant decoration like this is similar to ancient examples of illuminated text, like this example from the 12th century.

These days—particularly in business documents and publications—we don’t illuminate text, nor should we decorate charts. Both types of decoration act as speed bumps on the road to knowledge.

Here’s another example of a decorated chart from The Economist.

In this figure, at least, the junk doesn’t camouflage the column chart, which shows Spain’s total unemployment rate.

But the presentation of the unemployment rate among 15- to 24-year-olds in Spain is another matter. That measure is illustrated by the orange bags, using an unknown scale. Notice that it’s impossible to visually compare the two sets of rates.

Also notice that although The Economist had plenty of room for meaningless cartoons and mixed chart types, they had no room in the chart for the word “SPAIN”!

When you create Excel charts, always include key facts (like “Spain”) that give your readers a hint about the data your chart displays. And never add cartoons or other irrelevant decorations merely to make your charts more interesting.

If your readers find your data boring, adding meaningless decorations to your charts won’t cause them to find your data fascinating.

Here’s one last great example of a bad chart from the same issue of The Economist:

Pie charts are widely used, but they shouldn’t be. This is because humans can’t easily compare the relative sizes of each slice of the pie. (Comparing two slices of a pie chart isn’t quite as difficult as comparing a column chart with a hand-drawn balloon; but it’s close.)

In this figure, The Economist starts with the bad design decision to use a pie chart, and then makes it much worse.  First, it distorts the shape of the pie, which makes the slices even more difficult to compare. Then it attaches  lines and curves to the figure…decorations that draw the eye away from the information that the chart supposedly is designed to communicate.

Charts like the ones above tell readers of The Economist, “You’re probably as bored as we are with business and economics. So we’re adding pretty pictures and cartoons to our figures. And soon, we’ll make our magazine even more interesting by adding happy music, with dancing bulls and bears!”

I hope that’s not the direction they’re headed. I hope that the terrible chart figures in “The World in 2012″ were an aberration for The Economist.

Keep your fingers crossed.

{ 1 comment }

Patrick M April 5, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Great post, Charley. You’re right: we should expect much better from The Economist.

As far as WSJ goes, they really, really need to stop using those silly donut charts. “Let’s find a chart type that has all the bad properties of pie charts, but are even worse!”

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