A week ago, the following abomination appeared in the Sunday Times.
I’m not referring to the score line, but the infographic. Honestly, what does this graphic tell me? And how is my understanding enhanced by the visual elements?
- Scotland apparently played with greater intensity – the measure here being Dallaglio’s opinion – no actual data or measurement, but a couple of bubbles to make the point all the same
- Scotland won battles all over the field – a few thistles of varying sizes placed at random across the pitch, presumably to explain what ‘all over the field’ means
- The subs ignited England – picture of substitute jerseys with a small flame above each
- Ashton shut the door on Scotland – diagram of a door in case you don’t know what one is
- It was an ugly win – complete with checklist of other descriptions that might have been applicable
The graphic doesn’t aid me in any way. I would much rather they’d used photographs showing the intensity and the battles. As it stands, it’s actually harder to read than plain text.
A week later, I decided to explore how infographics and data visualisation are being used by the UK papers in general, starting with the Sunday broadsheets. I purchased the 4 broadsheets stocked by my local newsagent: The Times, The Observer, The Telegraph & The Independent (they each contained more than I bargained for, so I’ll split them across a series of posts).
First up, it’s the Sunday Times…
Explaining La Nina (sort of)
Other than show me where Australia, the UK and the US are, this hasn’t done much to aid my understanding of La Nina. A diagram could have been really useful here, but this one’s sadly lacking. Next.
Avoiding the Flu
The following diagram accompanies an article in which a virologist tells us how to avoid the flu:
Believe it or not, I quite like this. It does help me picture what is meant exactly by touching elbows and the sanitary sneeze. It’s a little fun, but I think it’s a reasonable addition to the article.
Anyone for Donuts?
Donuts appear to be a firm favourite at The Times.
I know some people don’t like showing parts of a whole in a bar graph, but it would make the comparisons across all 4 questions much easier. A stacked bar might have worked nicely here too. The same could apply below.
The problem could be that circles are just more pleasing to the eye than bars, especially among blocks of text. So I guess it depends on the purpose of the graphic – is it to make visual comparisons between the 3 options, or are they aiming for a bit of eye candy to lighten up the page? I suspect the latter.
The Simple Bar Graph
The example below shows how much easier it is to make comparisons using bars rather than donuts.
I like the minimal approach here. They could even have done away with the dotted line between bars too, but all ‘n’ all, much easier to read than previous entries.
This bar graph (above) is actually one of my favourite entries. Really easy to read – everything runs horizontally (the chart and the text), and there’s very little chart junk. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Oh dear. Just when things were looking up. This is like a bad comic strip. Content aside, this does nothing to tell the story. The scenes seem pretty disconnected, and don’t even provide useful snapshots. Next.
Ah the weather map. Not always good news in Britain, but a classic in the field of visualisation – well worthy of a place alongside the periodic table and the tube map. They could be a bit more generous on the distribution of UK temperatures to make this example more useful, but a pleasing return to something simple and effective.
Best and Worst Performers
Economics and Finance aren’t my strongest topics, so I may not be well placed to criticise here. Perhaps The Times Money section knows its audience well, and need not explain this graph any further. But to me, the category Auto and Parts (presumably as an industry) have risen by 49.4% in some measure. It’s probably explained in the article, but it would be worth making the chart as self-contained as possible with a good title and/or caption. Oh, I almost forgot – get rid of the giant arrows – what are they proving? We know what negative and positive growth rates mean.
The Best Accounts
I think the bubbles in the above chart are the same size (I’m not certain). If so, this isn’t visualising anything as such, and is simply a decorated table. But you know what? Maybe that’s okay. Yeah, I know – chart junk, chart junk… But it draws attention, and the design doesn’t do anything too distracting. I reckon it’s okay. We don’t want to get too serious all the time, do we?
The FTSE All Share
I really am out my depth with the content here to say whether or not this is sufficiently clear to the audience. The layout could do with a bit more breathing space though – a ruthless Tufte fan could save them a fair bit of ink here.
Time for some Lines
These could be cleaned up considerably. Ditch the gradient, and if you’re going to fill in under the line, make it go all the way to the line – don’t leave that awkward gap between the blue shading and the orange line. The gridlines aren’t really necessary here, nor are all the tick marks. The bolding on the y-axis seems unnecessary too, and I don’t know what putting the y-axis on the right is achieving – looks a bit odd. These graphs do serve their purpose well, but they could be a touch more elegant.
Into The Vault
A little more labeling could explain these charts better – I feel they might be saying something quite interesting, the top one at least. I wasn’t sure about shading under the top line (GDP cumulative change) then having another line plotted on the same chart (New Data). I haven’t seen this before. It does highlight the gaps between the 2 charts quite nicely. If you get rid of the gradient and the white gapes around the lines, I think it might work okay. The purists might take some convincing though.
A Gift From The Gods?
Wow. It really is infographic time here. It starts off with a strong premise – Thorium is meant to be a more efficient form of nuclear power and will produce less waste. But then starts with the chemical symbol and when it was discovered. Is that really essential detail and context for the story? The diagram of the reactor isn’t bad, but could be vastly improved with better (direct) labelling.
The last bit really is left lacking. I’d love to have seen a visual comparison showing how much waste the different methods create. That said, with the numbers involved (1 ton to 7m tons) it might not be possible. But the visuals they’ve opted for are actually doing the story a dis-service here – the green weights make Thorium look nowhere near as efficient (comparatively) as it really is (by these measures). And if this is the core point, why is it buried at the bottom after a chemistry lesson?
A Purple Elephant Balancing on a Pin?
“It would take an elephant balanced on a pencil to break a sheet of graphene no thicker than Cellophane” – I don’t know, I’m all for metaphors and comparisons, but I don’t think this will go down as a classic. I’ll bypass commenting on the rest. Next.
Stats of the Week
Not much really being visualised here – more of an illustration.
Rugby Rugby Rugby
This diagram is a very nice addition to the article. It could be slightly clearer in parts and lose a bit of unnecessary content, but it really does help you appreciate how the try was scored.
I find these kind of graphs quite hard to read. I can’t really compare the two teams visually, and really end up relying on the numbers themselves. At least the above keeps the centre point in a consistent position, unlike the example below which makes things even trickier.
Donuts galore again. They really don’t work too well when there are zeros involved though, do they? (see below)
Why have they tried to attribute the zeros above to some arbitrary part of the circle? At least they’ve avoided that flaw below:
And then another nice rugby diagram (maybe over-powered by the text a touch)…
Some more back to back bars…
I almost missed the glaring error here first time round. Each team has won 100% of their matches, but the donuts make it look like they won 50%. Hey, if you’d stood those bar graphs up the right way, I might have been able to compare the goal differences between the three teams – just a thought. And how useful are the statistics combining the goals for and against all 3 teams together? What am I to take from that?
Maps are great if you want to show a geographic pattern, but it’s not possible to do that here. The patterns would have been more visible, if the bar graphs all shared the same base line, or you could have gone for bubbles on a map showing the % increase (or the actual price). As it stands, your eyes have to do a lot of work to spot any patterns here. Seems pretty sparse on data too – it’s not really how parking charges have increased across Britain – it’s only ten places, of varying type (a few London boroughs compared with some towns and some cities).
Pie Trumps Pyramid
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the pyramid at the bottom makes me long for a pie or a donut. It’s nigh on impossible to figure out the comparisons here. And as for the concentric bubbles at the top, bleh, I don’t know where to start. Next.
Bubbling with Energy
The top 3 bubbles in this one are basically pull-quote statistics. I just wish they hadn’t positioned them as if they are meant to be compared. 35% is imported vs 8% which is renewable vs 6.4% – the amount their energy requirements are expected to grow. What on earth am I meant to do with that?!
The bottom part of the chart above is unfortunately pretty meaningless unless it’s compared to another country. I have no idea what that’s like as a portfolio of energy sources. What does the UK use for example?
This really seems like a bunch of stats. There doesn’t seem to be any point to the diagram, other than ‘look – lots of people live here’. Oh and there are also lots of airports.
The stats in the top part of this are actually quite interesting, but the comparison could have been easier with bars. Without the numbers, it’s really not easy to see what proportion of the country have mobile phone subscriptions. And then there’s the mobile-phone-styled-stacked-bar-graph at the bottom. No comment.
So there you have it. A quick run through of the Sunday Times’ use of data visualisation this week. I really had hoped to find better examples being committed to print. The simple bar graphs and the rugby diagrams stuck out as high points for me. But what do you think? Am I being too harsh? Not harsh enough? I’d love to hear your thoughts…