Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Data Visualization Goes Wrong

It's Jennifer again, and I'm happy to see a combination of two of my favorite things: creative visualizations, and fonts.

I love fonts.  I am a font geek.

So I was very pleased to see a chart illustrating how much ink common fonts use relative to one another, here

...That is, until I reached the end of the short article, beneath the pen graph: "Simple, understandable & clever."

Um, not exactly.

The chart uses clear plastic pens displaying varying levels of ink as a bar graph.  Cute, yes. Clever, definitely.  But not simple and not completely understandable.  Unfortunately, the data visualization choice could at a glance be read as saying the exact opposite of what it intends.  I loved it until I saw the problem.  If you're going to go through the trouble of gathering and presenting information, shouldn't you try hard to make sure that misinterpretation of this sort is not likely to happen?

Do you see it?  Do you agree with me?


  1. Nice blogging, Jennifer.

    My initial reaction was the same -- my mind immediately thought "bar graph" until I realized it was actually an anti-bar graph, which I "get" but still find kind of strange.

  2. It takes a bit of thought, but I like that about it. It's clever. Maybe too clever.

  3. Thanks, Justin! I'm glad you saw it, too. What if they labeled anti-bar graphs as such to avoid confusion? Just as a courtesy?

  4. Bob, it took a moment for you, too, then. Isn't that a sign that it's a bad way to present data? I appreciate cleverness, too, but at the expense of clarity...?

  5. I don't know, Jenn. I think it depends on what you want from such things. I may have a range of qualities I appreciate about them, and they may compete with each other. Would it have helped if the pens were reversed so that the empty ends began at the right? Is the problem that we expect left-to-right bars or that we expect dark bars on light backgrounds?

    I feel similarly about humor. I prefer humor that requires a pause to reflect so that its cleverness can be seen. I appreciate a balance between getting your point across (or failing altogether) and doing so in an entertaining way. I'm willing to give an extra moment to receive the entertainment.

    (I'd still flip the pens so that they read left-to-right.)