SEPTEMBER 12, 2012 | by Mark Hurst
Here’s an eye-catching graphic that I noticed while reading The Economist recently:
This was part of a half-page ad by Wharton, the well-known business school at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the ad, the graphic is displayed with this caption: “Each [square] equals one year of experience. Each column represents a faculty member in Wharton’s Finance Department.”
Examine the graphic for a moment. A quick glance shows you that (a) Wharton employs lots of finance professors, and they (b) have differing levels of experience. That’s pretty unremarkable, as any business school would fit those two statements. If there’s anything distinctive about Wharton, the graph doesn’t say.
An even bigger problem is that the graph seems to communicate much more than this: there are lots of bright colors with intriguing repetition, and a kind of wave pattern in the height of the columns. But it’s unclear what these communicate. Do the colors mean something? Is the wave pattern showing a progression over time?
Unfortunately, these elements don’t mean anything. What graph does communicate is hardly worth mentioning, and what the graph pretends to communicate is just meaningless decoration. And that’s why I immediately bookmarked the graphic when I saw it: this is a perfect example of the misuse of “information visualization” (what normal people call “graphs”).
The trend of “infoviz” really took off in the last few years as faster computers and better software made it easy for people to turn ever-increasing amounts of data into splashy visuals. A certain look-and-feel has become popular, with large-font text combined with brightly colored cartoonish images. This list shows some of the major online tools and representative images.
But software and pretty colors don’t, by themselves, make a better explanation. Instead, to create a good graph, you have to think about the experience of the people who will view it. What do you want them to learn? How can you communicate that elegantly, using only a few essential elements? Can you make the graphic more about them (imparting understanding) and less about you (showing off empty graphic design talents)? As I’ve written before, the true test of any info visualization is whether people can describe what they LEARNED. “It’s really pretty” doesn’t cut it.
And this is the supreme irony of the Wharton ad: this top-notch business school wanted to show how substantial they are, so they published a graphic that is superficially interesting but teaches very little. Any thoughtful reader of the ad would come away with (I would hope) exactly the wrong impression of the school.
If you want my recommendation for a good infoviz toolset, here it is: very effective, and very low cost. A sharp mind to grasp the concept, a sense of empathy for the reader, and a pencil. Get those right and some pretty on-screen colors are trivial to add later.
For more reading and viewing:
• 3 truths of info visualization features an excellent infographic about whiskey – made with pen and paper.
• Sloppy Info displays several flagrantly bad designs for graphs.
• Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction is a great read, talking about equations and code as abstractions on the same level as visualizations.
• Vanishing Point is a music video using the language of infoviz – and as it’s purely for aesthetics, it’s a great piece of work.
• baroque.me is a fantastic visualization of a Bach cello suite, as I’ve pointed out before, showing what info visualization should be: elegant, beautiful, yet aimed at new understanding.
• Wharton: Knowledge for Action is a Flickr set of graphics used in an accompanying PDF brochure. Judge for yourself. (In particular see the Power Cluster image: a network graph showing that there is zero cross-industry connection among Wharton alumni!)