The Inner Beauty of Business Charts

Naked womanCan a picture of a nude person improve your decision-making processes? (Please don’t say “yeaaaaah”.) Probably not, but if you need a good attention grabber a picture of a naked b0dy is your best bet. Make sure you’ll add one to your next sales report.

Because, if you are using those glossy 3D pie charts from Crystal Xcelsius (or Dundas, or…), you are applying the same principle, safe-for-work version. Your underlying message to your audience is “you are so dumb that you don’t even understand a simple chart with a clear message. I have to use charts that obfuscate the message, but they grab your attention and that’s all that matters. Let me take my shirt off too.”

I’m a business analyst I usually try to create charts that can support the decision-making process. I am not a graphic designer, trying to illustrate a story and get reader’s attention.

When you are in a corporate environment you can enjoy the attention of your audience (the organization is paying for it…). Also, information is shared among people with similar professional profile that at least know what the basic concepts are.

On the contrary, in a magazine, your readers don’t know or may not care about your subject. How do you grab their attention? Your best option is to add a photo of a naked male/female. Can you justifiably use it to illustrate the story? Do it. You don’t? OK, try other attention-grabber devices, like a nice, glossy pie chart (not as satisfying, though).

These are different needs, but we, the so called “visualization experts” often fail to aknowledge that.

Eye-Catching Charts vs. Decision-Support Charts

Eye-catching charts are used to get the reader’s attention by providing some sort for light entertainment. Their primary focus is on the format. They use many colours and and large textured surfaces. Because of that, their data density is low and context is almost absent. A 3D pie chart is the typical eye-catching chart.

Decision-support charts  focus on the data and should be “invisible” (the audience sees the patterns, not the chart). There are no textured surfaces and colors are used to highlight specific details. The display real estate can be filed with context data, maximizing data density. The typical decision-support chart is, obviously, the scatterplot.

Charts for Analysis and Charts for Communication – Not Anymore?

This is the traditional split. After the analysis stage, the analyst should prepare his/her findings for the communication stage. But vendors like Microsoft and Business Objects have been short-circuiting this process, selling the idea that all you need is form, not content, and whatever stage you are in, you must have a nicely textured 3D chart.

These charts are sold as “professional-looking” and let’s accept that for a moment. They are professional-looking from a graphic designer perspective, but they are completely useless in a corporate environement where you have masssive amounts of data to deal with. I’m sorry to say, but the more textured charts you have the dumber you look.

Pin-Up Charts Don’t Belong Here

I don’t really care about pin-up charts (charts that the media pin up on their pages…).  Sometimes they are amusing (not sexy, unfortunately) but they just don’t belong in a corporate environment. If you need attention, make better use of your data to find its inner beauty or use a photo of a proper pin-up.

6 thoughts on “The Inner Beauty of Business Charts

  1. This is my first visit to your site, and I really liked. I was looking for ideas for data visualization and I couldn’t stop reading many of your posts. I should confess that I almost left the site without reading anything when the first thing I saw was a nude woman picture; it wouldn’t be good if someone at work saw what was in my screen. Anyway, I just started my own blog about Excel, it is in Spanish, but it is still empty. I hope I can help at least a little to Spanish talking people to stop being “eternal Excel beginners”, as you said in one of your posts

    Congratulations for your good work.

  2. Gabriela, I know this post is not exactly safe-for-work (and I will not tell you what my first choice was…) but I wanted to be bluntly clear about the use of “sexy” charts in a business environment.

    Thanks for your message and good luck with your new blog. I think I wrote somewhere that my previous blog was written in Portuguese and I had to give up after a year because no one seemed to care (maybe it was my fault… I have to try again). Hope the Spanish-speaking world is more willing to interact.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing is more upsetting than when someone is trying to “sell” an idea with a “sexy” chart. Just like a commercial in which advertisers use sex appeal as a selling point, you gotta question their intention and motivations for “sexying it up.”

    If you have something real to share, just share it! We don’t need 3D graphics or semi-nudity. Luckily, it seems that we’re moving closer to a society in which the idea of pull advertisement has made people realize that people who are watching are making decisions. Hopefully ideas like sleek, 3D charts will disappear…..

  4. Hi Jorges,

    we’ve had that conversation before. Some tools or websites produce glossy charts for the sake of glossiness, or just to show they can. This is pointless.

    however the amount of design which is necessary to make a chart look acceptable is increasing. It’s no longer OK to just let the data speak and consider aesthetics an afterthought. I’d argue for instance that on screen, using simple solid colours is neither the most legible, nor the most pleasing way to present information. The right level of aesthetics makes a chart easier to understand and retain.

    So while a pin-up chart is not commendable, it shouldn’t be an eyesore either. you may want to check this:
    http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/emotion_design.html

    cheers
    jerome

  5. Jacob, many innocents will suffer, as usual, but we are going back to the basics, this time for real.

    Jerome, yes we had, and we still agree… The problem seems to be how to define “the right level of aesthetics”. Today I saw yet another presentation where the presenter had no problem in presenting slides with multiple disks (3D pie charts). In (at least) one of the slides she had two one-slice pie charts, and she could be happier with it. As I often say, the problem is not the design, is the poor data analysis/management skills. Poor data visualization skills are the symptoms of a more serious condition.

  6. Hi,
    This is the second time I am visiting your visit… and probably my comment for a 10 month old blog will tell you how much i have thru it..
    I am just a beginner in the arena of social research and trying to do data analysis..
    ‘I am a business analyst, not a graphic designer’ is the strongest statement that had made me to write this comment. It is true people are more worried about the beautification of the material than for the utility of it. I suppose we are letting more ‘graphic designers’ encroaching the arena of social research, most of the them (not all) who cannot even comprehend or at least try to understand the utility of the data that is to be presented. I was just reading ur Tufte blog… u just wont believe that just today I got hold his book on ‘Data visualisation’. Let me read the book and comment on ur blog on the same.. I think now in 2010 given the growth in the data visualisation field, the old war between the beauty vs. the brain has started again..
    And Jorge… I am an young researcher in the development sector from India.. hope I will learn a lot from you and your site.. I have already started.. Thank u and continue ur work..

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