Yesterday Jorge Camoes asked an interesting question: Can Edward Tufte Do Business Charts?
Tufte is the famous data presentation guru who has brought such concepts as sparklines, data-to-ink ratio, and chartjunk into the common understanding of charting and graphic design. Tufte’s principles revolve around increasing the density of data in a display and reducing clutter and unneeded elements. Sparklines are “word-sized” graphics which condense a series of data into a smallspace, greatly increasing data densities. Chartjunk is anything added to a chart that is extraneous to the actual data itself, such as false 3D effects, shadows and other shading effects, and gratuitous clipart.
Tufte has shared his thoughts in such books as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, and Beautiful Evidence
. He also has a popular seminar which he presents in major cities across the country; I attended in Boston back in about 2003.
Many of Tufte’s principles have been incorporated into modern graphical packages. There are at least two commercial packages which add sparkline capabilities to Excel: Sparklines for Excel by Fabrice Rimlinger. Unfortunately a great deal of chartjunk is also marketed as Business Intelligence and Data Visualization systems. Among these are Dundas, .net Charting, and ChartFX (links not included on purpose), and the list goes on.by Bissantz, and by BonaVista Systems, and an open source Excel utility,
Jorge claims that “[u]sing aesthetics to improve function is probably the major contribution of Edward Tufte to the display of quantitative information.” Tufte’s aesthetics incorporates a minimalist approach to graphical design, and while this approach has great merits, it is not supported by scientific evidence. Sometimes Tufte takes his principles to the extreme, as in his boxplot replacement which uses single lines offset b the line width to indicate the quartiles. Other authors, for example Tukey, Bertin, and Cleveland, have provided evidence-backed principles for information display in studies about human perception and cognition.
Tufte also emphasizes a chart being the end product of analysis plus graphic design, where the chart is painstakingly laid out for publishing on a high-quality paper medium. For this, Tufte’s tool of choice is Adobe Illustrator. Tufte doesn’t say much about Excel, other than PowerPoint, however, Tufte is a harsh critic and is ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater.that his students are able to apply his principles while using Excel. On the subject of
For business purposes, charts have to be effective, but they also have to be dynamic, interactive, and fast. All three of these requirements rule out Illustrator and point to a program like Excel. Excel enables rapid generation of charts, it allows linking of charts to dynamic external data, and with a small (or large, some would say) amount of effort, Excel can produce interactive and even animated displays.
I would hope that readers of this blog have found useful techniques that accomplish these objectives while still maintaining some aesthetic appeal. In addition to my blog, I would point readers to the following for discussions on aesthetic charting techniques:
- Jorge Camoes’ Charts
- Junk Charts
- Me, Myself and BI
- More Information per Pixel!
- Information Ocean
- Pointy Haired Dilbert
- Perceptual Edge
I’d like to point out two authors who are particularly useful when it comes to business charting. The first is my colleague Mike Alexander, with whom I’ve presented a dashboarding course, and who has written Ten Chart Design Principles, a guest post on this blog. Mike has written a number of books on data analysis using Excel, Access, and Excel pivot tables. I will forgive Mike’s foray into Crystal Xcelsius: heck, it seemed like something worth exploring, I even tried it (but I didn’t inhale). However, Mike’s Excel Dashboards and Reports For Dummies is a comprehensive treatment of Excel’s capabilities as a dashboarding platform, and describes methods for creating displays which are comprehensible, dynamic, and interactive.
The second author is Stephen Few of Perceptual Edge. Stephen has written two books, Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten and Information Dashboard Design: Displaying Data for At-a-Glance Monitoring, in which he incorporates the aesthetic principles of Tufte and the state-of-the-art knowledge in the fields of perception and cognitive science into easy to follow and, most important, easy to implement principles for effective business information display. Stephen’s third book, Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis, uses these principles to describe exploratory graphical data analysis.