On Seth Godin on Charts

In The three laws of great graphs, Seth Godin gave these three laws for great graphs:

1. One Story
2. No Bar Charts
3. Motion

In Bar graphs vs. Pie charts, Seth further explains his comments about bar charts:

[T]he purpose of a chart or graph is to make one point, vividly.

I commented on Seth’s three laws in Seth’s Three Laws of Great Graphs, where I agreed in principle with rules 1 and 3. I felt he was overly dismissive of bar charts and overly permissive of pie charts, and suggested an alternate rule 2: Choose Chart Types Intelligently. I countered Seth’s criticism of bar charts in Bar graphs vs. Pie charts, by showing examples of bar charts which were improvements over the pie chart he gave as his example.

Two of my favorite bloggers have joined the debate about Seth’s charting guidelines:

Jorge says that Seth’s One Story rule should really say tell a story clearly, which also means include necessary information but leave out irrelevant information. Jorge agrees with me that Seth’s “No bar charts” rule is misguided, and should be a more thoughtful process of choosing the right chart type. Jorge feels that motion can play a part in effective information display, but that Seth’s motion is “just a silly dramatic effect for presentation purposes”. Finally, Jorge presents his own three rules:

1. Tell a story;
2. Remove irrelevant data;
3. Choose the right messenger;
4. Bonus law: let the user write the story.

Kaiser agrees with Seth’s One Story rule, but not with the idea that nuance is bad and leads to confusion. A better guideline than reducing nuance is reducing complexity through careful planning and design. Kaiser feels that Seth’s prohibition of bar charts is based on an unfamiliarity with which chart types best depict which types of information. Kaiser shows some bar charts which are not well designed, but agrees that bar charts are valid in many cases, and other types beside pie charts may also be effective.

In fairness to Seth Godin’s point of view, he is talking about making marketing presentations to nontechnical audiences, and you often need to make a quick point without confusion or distraction. My own background is in making presentations and writing reports for highly technical audiences of scientists and engineers, people who live with numbers. It is still important to provide a clear statement without extraneous detail, and for this crowd, extraneous detail has a different definition. But when I think about removing nuance from charts, I am reminded of Jack Nicholson’s famous “You can’t handle the truth!” tirade from A Few Good Men.

Update (14 July 2008)

Three more favorite blogs of mine have chimed in, with commentary much as I have described above:

Update (15 July 2008)

Several additional reviews have come to my attention:

Apparently there is quite an industry surrounding the wisdom of Seth Godin. A lot of his marketing advice seems very well founded. I’ve seen him on YouTube, of course, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of his following. If you Google for Seth, you will find dozens of blog entries by people who only link to his posts, or reiterate the takeaways from his posts and say “Good stuff” and “Seth’s done it again!” The proportion of readers who step back and say, “Seth’s pretty smart, but I don’t think that’s right” seems pretty small.

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  1. I finally got in on the act: http://www.juiceanalytics.com/writing/godin-dumps-bar-charts/
    In particular, I didn’t like Godin’s phrase “data presentation purists” which seemed to be used to make this group sound like a bunch of visualization radicals out of touch with common business situations.

  2. Zach –

    Thanks for chiming in. I was just updating this post when your comment came in.

  3. That explains the angry buzzing of hornets whenever Godin says something silly about graphs, whereas my reaction is “who the hell is this Seth guy anyway!?”

  4. Hi, sorry for being clueless, but I was wondering if someone can tell me what graphic software Seth Godin was using when he did his presentation ” See the poverty disappear “.. or something like that I do not remember the exact title.

    Thanks much

  5. Sammish – I believe you’re thinking of Hans Rosling, not Seth Godin. I link to the famous poverty talk and show a simple Excel variation in Gapminder for Excel.


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