Sub-Prime Charts: Should Data Visualization Be Boring?

In a recent article for the New York Times, Paul Krugman, the 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, writes:

“The banking industry that emerged from that collapse

[the Great Depression] was tightly regulated, far less colorful than it had been before the Depression, and far less lucrative for those who ran it. Banking became boring, partly because bankers were so conservative about lending (…).Strange to say, this era of boring banking was also an era of spectacular economic progress for most Americans.”

Now that history is repeating itself, I believe that this applies to data visualization too. The 3D pie chart with pseudo-realistic textures, charting tools like Dundas, Crystal Xcelsius and Excel 2007’s charting engine, they all share the same spirit of the times that nurtured the sub-prime lending mess and all that followed. The spirit of the times that rewards illusory short-term results and effectively dismisses consistent, well-founded, long term strategies.

Can’t We Learn?

We may be scared of the future, but are we scared enough? Krugman again:

“Despite everything that has happened, most people in positions of power still associate fancy finance with economic progress. Can they be persuaded otherwise? Will we find the will to pursue serious financial reform? If not, the current crisis won’t be a one-time event; it will be the shape of things to come.”

Many business managers still associate fancy charts with serious decision-supporting tools. This is the right time to change. Eye-candy, “professional looking” charts are sub-prime charts, and if you take them seriously, they’ll do to your business what sub-prime lending is doing to the world economy.

Take a Chart Stress Test

Good charts are invisible. If your audience’s first comments go to your chart format and design, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. Get back to your charting tool and create a new chart. Do it as many times as necessary. The audience must see and comment the data patterns only, not the chart.

Charts don’t have to be boring. ”If the statistics are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers” says Tufte. If you need your daily adrenaline shot, get it from the insights a good chart provides, not from the chart design.

What do you think? Is this crisis creating a serious “back to the basics” spirit that will influence the way organizations optimize their resources, including the time they spend creating useless charts and presentations?

Photo credit: Steve Kay

7 thoughts on “Sub-Prime Charts: Should Data Visualization Be Boring?

  1. Thanks for this great discussion of the NY Times article. Though the title could be somewhat misleading because as you said: it’s not about a chart being boring but rather clear, precise and reduced to the essential.

  2. I think suit and tie business may go back to conservative chart making but specter of wild and crazy infographics/visualization has already been let out of the box and is only growing in intensity. People are stretching information display to see how far they can do so. I look forward to a return to the age of comprehension in that area.

  3. @Jess: That’s OK with me… Business users should never elect the media as their role model for data visualization. Copying “crazy infographics” using Excel will be harder…

    @Benjamim: Thanks. “clear, precise and reduced to the essential”: well, some people will argue that this is what boring is about… (I love Prague. I was there twice and I’d love to show it to my almost 4-year old twins. Do you think I should add Kafka to their bed-time stories?:)

  4. I have been chuckling quietly over the microsoft add which shows a sullen teen taking his dad’s laptop and jazzing up his boring sales presentation with gee-whizz graphics and animations. If Microsoft believe that the possibility of doing this to business information is some to advertise then we’re all in big trouble! I work in the academic sector and the first thing I tell students when I am training them to produce charts is that less is almost always more for scientific charting: clear data presentation, visible and legible labels, a proper legend, include units always and that’s about it. Oh and one dimension in the chart and no more for each dimension in the data.

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