Social Strategy

Visualizing Data: Beyond “Chartjunk”

Day-ta. Daaah-ta. Dat-um?

However you pronounce (or pluralize) it, big data is making even bigger headlines. While many businesses are finding better and cooler ways to actually use this data to become more efficient or solve problems, a disconnect remains: how can the average person really take advantage of a plethora of petabytes?

The most dreaded courses of my grad school curriculum were Statistics, parts one and – for good measure – two. (Some masochistic classmates even took a third quarter elective.) While we struggled through regression analysis and establishing null hypotheses, we also discussed good survey design and how to think about data.

Which leads me to Edward Tufte.

A Yale statistician, Tufte invented the term “chartjunk” to describe unnecessary or irrelevant information that clutters a visual display. Tufte urged presenters to think through how they used data visually. According to Tufte, a good visual graph or chart conveys  “complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision and efficiency.”

(He was very against PowerPoint. I can get on board with that.)

As both big data and social media create and occupy more and more bandwidth, we’ve begun creating more graphics. Studies have found that visually pleasing graphics – particularly infographics – are shared much more frequently than plain text. Meanwhile, though, more visuals fail Tufte’s guidelines, communicating nothing of value or leaving the viewer to wonder what exactly they should be grasping.

Jim Stikeleather of HBR reminds us that data can and should be used to tell stories, and offers five key pointers for telling a good story. While most are common sense, it’s good to keep these in mind the next time you’re tasked with turning data into a compelling visual.

It’s easy to just throw a bunch of numbers into a pretty format – it’s another to really tell a story.

What’s your favorite example of a good – or bad – infographic?

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