The wrong info visualization: Wharton’s ad

September 12, 2012 By Mark Hurst 9 Comments

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!)


  1. Scott Stowell September 12, 2012 3:22 pm


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  2. Judah Gould September 12, 2012 3:52 pm

    Good critique, however, let’s face it, the Wharton ad was not truly aiming for effective data visualization; it’s mainly for aesthetics — to make the data points look like an audio frequency graphic equalizer. It even says so in big letters on the ad itself: “FINANCE FREQUENCY”. I’m sure if Wharton was really trying to do data visualization properly they wouldn’t have just, for example, picked random non-coordinating colors. So it’s not really a fail in UX terms, since the business goal was to visually portray “frequency”, and they did so. You know, marketing.

    Other than that, thanks so much for the link dump in the end, the “10 Fun Tools To Easily Make Your Own Infographics” one especially is valuable.

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  3. Vince King September 12, 2012 5:02 pm

    Excellent point!
    What the Wharton infoviz tells me is that they have some professors with tons of experience and others with almost none. Their caption touts the benefit of having over 1,000 years of collective teaching experience (implying that more experience is better). So, that leads me to infer that I would not be getting my money’s worth if I got stuck with a professor who has fewer than 10 years of experience (or about a third of their professors). Definitely not a good selling point for their program.

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  4. Regis Magyar September 12, 2012 5:03 pm

    I agree the Wharton graphic is mysterious but we could derive some meaning from it if the Wharton faculty understood that there is three things you can do with data. Sort it (into classes), Count it (determing frequency) and Order it (from highest to lowest). If we knew what the colors meant we would know what data classes are being displayed, and we could order these classes by frequency from highest to lowest for each professor. The data could also be analyzed and displayed on graphs by displaying the statistics on the professors’ specialty, experience, and background. Unfortunately,I guess they don’t teach these basic skills in business school anymore.

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  5. Royce Shin September 12, 2012 5:56 pm

    There are some good examples of fixing overdecoration and inappropriate presentation at perceptualedge.com (Stephen Few).

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  6. Susan Harkus September 12, 2012 10:08 pm

    The Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, once wrote, on seeing an insect on a lady’s bonnet – the lady, thinking she looked fantastic – “O wid some poo’er the giftie gie us tae see oorsels as ithers see us.”, which for those who aren’t into the gallic vernacular basically means “I wish some power would give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us. For online designers/producers, I’d rephrase this to “I wish someone would give us the ability to see ‘our’ user experience as our USERS experience it.”

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  7. Doug September 13, 2012 10:26 am

    The whole Wharton set is just lazy. The one that seems the simplest to fix would be the “Educational Pull” one that showed the nations that their students hailed from. It seems so simple to put Wharton at the center of a globe/circular map and then plot out the general direction of travel to the respective countries. Hell, they could have put an actual map under the data. Instead, you have students travelling in the same direction from both Brazil, Canada, and Nigeria. I suppose if students travelled south from Brazil they could arrive at Wharton in the same general direction as students from Canada, but I have no idea how you get to Nigeria travelling in that direction.

    And the very first infographic in their brochure, the one that they also used as a welcome mat (!) entitled “Power Cluster”. Holy lord. WTF does that even mean? Instead of telling me how many alumni leaders they have in each sector, they actually broke it down into hundreds of hard-to-read dots. They actually made it harder to figure it out than if they had just given a table with numbers.

    All this brochure tells me is that Wharton puts out the kind of MBAs who decide to form a startup in order to make “the next facebook.” The type that have just no idea how to synthesize the relatively simple concepts of business into something greater.

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  8. Doug September 13, 2012 10:31 am

    Also, you should probably pull your link to the sloppy info site. It hasn’t been updated in 7 months and all of the charts are missing.

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  9. Stephanie Sawchenko September 13, 2012 11:35 am

    Wow, I didn’t realize how numb I’ve become to info graphics, which I myself create, until I read this. I *was* getting the Fast Company Info graphic of the Day email for over a year, and I’d look at them and find them all to be weak informationally. I thought that it was just me being a design snob, but now I think it’s what you point out. It seems the business/advertising world is apathetic about communicating information. Getting cheap so to speak on design (in one way or another).

    I think you pointed out a big trend Mark, as you said this goes back for years. And I really question Facebook’s “social graph” and some of the other info graphics they produce. The look cool but I’m always wondering what the heck they actually mean. Perhaps Facebook gave rise to the vapid but pretty info graphic trend?

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