From the New York Times comes a visualization that is not all that surprising, but still unnerving. This is not a bar chart.
Is this effective? Yes and no. For one, the coloration is good; red and darker colors stand out, drawing our attention to our dismal statistics. But let’s compare this to a CDC graphic of infant mortality:
That, however, is a bar chart. What I find so effective is the relative size of the bars (and this is why log transformations are so useful…), which makes comparison intuitive and easy. Yet it is still powerful:
(Via NYT, again)
A while back, Seth Godin, a well-known marketing guru, posted an invective against bar charts, arguing that:
If you want to prove some deep insight or give people textured data to draw their own conclusions, DON’T put [a bar chart] in a presentation.
As Zach Gemingnani responded on the Juice Analytics blog, bar charts are actually quite useful, showing both trends and magnitudes at the same time. This is not a trivial point. The ability for a visualization to encode more information in a simpler way is a powerful asset that shouldn’t be overlooked. As I have argued before, the brain is a very good tool for decoding pattern information, a point that Godin seems not to recognize.
So let’s not forget about the bar chart—it is the unsung hero of data visualization, and deserves some respect.
- Strata 2011: Communicating Data Clearly (infosthetics.com)