Rethinking “chart junk”

May 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Click on the image for a copy of the study.

With its minimalist approach, Edward Tufte’s book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” changed the way many people view information graphics. Charts should be free of embellishments, or “chart junk,” Tufte said, because they can distort the information and make the charts more difficult to understand.

Not so, according to a study out of the Interaction Lab a the University of Saskatchewan.

The researchers showed test subjects graphics made by Nigel Holmes–whose hallmark style mashes up illustrations and charts–and unembellished versions of the same graphics. The report concludes that readers can understand embellished charts just as easily as unembellished ones. It also found that readers were able to retain the information longer if they viewed the embellished charts, and they simply liked the embellished ones more.


Book: Nudge

December 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Humans are confronted with hundreds of choices every day. The way objects and messages are arranged affects these choices, and the people who arrange these objects and messages can be considered “choice architects.” For instance a cafeteria manager can decide to arrange food in a way that makes it easiest for customers to reach for healthy choices, that maximizes profits or that reflects the choices that people would most commonly make on their own with no encouragement.

The book “Nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein ( tries to alert decision-makers that they are choice architects who must understand how humans behave. Without this awareness, the result can be apathy, confusion and harmful choices, such as bad investments, ill health and – as the diagram below shows – burnt pots.

In this example from the book, the most common design for cooking range burners and their corresponding knobs is shown at the top. Since the layout of the burners does not reflect the layout of the knobs, people can get confused about which burner they’re firing. (I’ve done this countless times on electric ranges.) Two alternatives are shown. I prefer the middle one, in which the burners and knobs are most closely mirrored.

I recommend this book to information graphics specialists. We need to think of ourselves as choice architects and understand how regular people interact with our designs. Will they read the intro first, or will they go straight to the chart? Should we be showing how the Libor (London Interbank Offering Rate) moved during the credit crisis, or do our readers just need an explainer on what Libor is? If we use the color red, will the readers think it refers to danger or decline? How can we design the graphic to lead the reader through its components in a logical sequence with intuitive symbology and colors?

Book: “Otto Neurath, the Language of the Global Polis”

November 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Otto Neurath, designer and sociologist, made beautiful pictograms that invoked the data he displayed. If his units represented unemployed people, they might take the form of hunched, depressed silhouettes, hands in pockets. Days of travel across the ocean might be expressed as jagged ocean waves.

We often forget that information graphics need not be cold and clinical.  The book “Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis” serves as a tonic to that tendency.

The blurb for the book: “Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath was a seminal Modernist figure. Much attention has been given to his achievements in the fields of graphic design and philosophy (Neurath was a member of the Vienna Circle, founder of the Museum of Society and Economy, inventor of the ISOTYPE pictorial system and champion of the Unity of Science movement), yet his involvement with urbanism and architecture has been all but ignored. From 1931 onwards, Neurath collaborated with the International Congress of Modern Architecture and its chief exponents–Cornelis van Eesteren, Sigfried Giedion, Le Corbusier and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy–to develop an international language of urban planning and design. More experimentally, throughout the 1930s a fascination with visual media led to an attempt to franchise the Museum of Society and Economy by establishing international satellite museums. This volume contains a text by curator and writer Nader Vossoughian, which offers a fresh perspective on one of the most versatile intellectuals of the twentieth century.”

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