Craft Topics – Chart Junk
I have to start with an apology to our US readers – this piece was inspired by the UK election and after commenting on the US elections last year it seemed only fair to put the UK in the dock for a change. Visitors from outside the UK won’t recognise the character on the right. This is Peter Snow is the BBC’s presenter of any statistics that need explaining to the idiot public. The BBC has a massive graphics division so whenever there is the least excuse, on he comes to baffle us. At the end of this most recent of elections when actually nothing happened – ie the government stayed in power but with reduced majority. The electorate gave Tony Blair a good kicking for ignoring public opinion and joining the invasion of Iraq. So the headline was Labour still in power. Of course this wasn’t good enough for the BBC’s graphics department. The day of the election saw Peter Scott racing around a studio which he was able to convert into a virtual house of commons with MPs all colour coded. He was able to show the extent of the swing. The really impressive part was when he ran forward and leaped into thin air.. and landed on a graphic set of steps leading into the data which he ran up while giving further explanations. The following link allows you you to explore the swingometer and the seat counter among the many toys available on news bulletins and on the website.The problem with all of the theatre was that it distracted from the real story – that nothing had fundamentally changed.
Which brings me neatly to Edward Tufte whose paper the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint is reviewed in this months Recent Reads. Edward Tufte teaches graphic communication at Yale and self publishes the most wonderful books about how to communicate information using graphics. Tufte has introduced 2 terms which I commend to you.
The first is data-ink which he defines thus: dataink is the non-erasible core of a graphic, the non-redundant ink arranged in response to variation in the numbers represented.
The dataink ratio is data-ink divided by the total ink used to print the graphic = 1.0 – the % of a graphic that can be erased without loss of information.
The second is chartjunk a word coined by Tufte which is the exact opposite of data ink – it is graphics which communicates nothing so increases the proportion of noise to signal. Iit is easy to slag off Powerpoint because we all use it and will continue to use it. But PowerPoint graphics are full of chart junk as are Excel charts – it is always worth considering if there isn’t a more economical way to communicate the same information. It will almost certainly be more efficient. We can use paper and Word documents – we can use intranets and pages which we can assemble in web browsers. In the multimedia training course I teach we look at DVD authoring and how this might allow us to present information in radically new ways. But the real killer is using the existing tools which produce lowest common denominator results. And to use them unthinkingly because we haven’t got time to think about how to communicate properly
Tufte produces many examples of great communication to illustrate how to maximise dataink and minimise chartjunk. Here’s one of my favourites – it shows the invasion of Russia by Napoleon. This chart shows no less than 6 variables – the size of the army, its location, direction of the army’s movement and temperature on various dates. Now there really is no reason why we have to do all our work with projectors on screens. I once worked on a presentation for a 3 year customer comms programme where we drove down to the client on a minibus because it was the only way we could get the 3 massive boards there one for each year of the programme which showed what would happen at each stage and how many customers would be affected. The 3 boards were the heart of the presentation.
Edward Tufte has also managed to discover some wonderful parodies of famous speeches converted into PowerPoint. I add my own here as a tribute. The original text reads: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”– Speech made in the House of Commons as the Battle Britain peaked on August 20, 1940.
It is just a reminder of how our presentation methods frequently sell ourselves short. I conclude with an example I’me very proud of – it isn’t information so much as a way of making sure the audience learned. Over dinner at a workshop I was running I was asked to run an activity to get people thinking about customers. so I made a game of Cluedo featuring customers products and usage occasions – we played it by candlelight in a country house. The intention? To get the team to instinctively match products to customers to usage occasions. The best way to learn is when you haven’t even noticed that you’e being taught.