Microsoft: Why Most Business Charts and Graphs Suck

Three-dimensional charts and graphs hide information unless three dimensions are being plotted.

UPDATE: It looks like the video has been closed down. Thank goodness. The InfoTruck claims no responsibility for this improvement

I don’t know how many hundreds of times I have sat through presentations in business meetings or at conferences where the presenter shows slides with a 3-D column chart. Because the column is drawn in three dimensions, it is hard to tell exactly where on the y-axis the top of the column corresponds with. In making the column chart fancy, the presenter inadvertently hid information.

This is even worse on a 3-D pie chart, whose job is to illustrate relative amounts or area.

Decoration is not design.

Design finds solutions to problems, decoration dresses things up for the holiday. When delivering information graphically, always begin with two dimensions. Dollars over time. Building permits per zip code. Miles per hour. Words per minute. Only move to three dimensions when the information asks for it. Height, width, and depth for example.

Here is a TV commercial I saw the other day that pushed me over the edge (not really, but it did provoke me into writing this).

Microsoft: where information goes to die. This is the enemy of information delivery, it is either ignorance or subterfuge.

No, I do not expect a school kid to be an expert at statistical information delivery, but I do expect Microsoft to understand the fundamental concept. The maker of this ad, Microsoft, solidly perpetuates the myth that a 3-D column chart is better than a 2-D chart; when two dimensions more clearly show the data.

Use design elements to bring the information forward

If you are unhappy with how your two-dimensional chart looks, and you want to kick it up a notch (sorry Emeril), turn to color, typography, and alignment. These elements can make the chart legible and the data accessible. Adding dimension only obscures the data.

Begin by eliminating extra stuff from the chart — chart junk, as Edward Tufte, calls it. You don’t always need grid lines denoting x and y axis values. Tick marks are often enough. Better yet, use white lines inside the column (in a column chart). This puts the information right where it is needed.

I am no expert on color, but I can say that if color isn’t being used to clarify information, it is probably sabotaging the information (more on using color in a future post — with actual information from an art director). Font choices should be simple and easy to read. Skip the fancy cursive typefaces. And please don’t use comic sans; it makes you look like a kid or your crazy Aunt Millie.

As long as we are on topic of words, we might as well write the words to deliver the information. Say what the information means — give the bottom line up front, or BLUF (thanks, Manager Tools). Compare these two titles:

Online Memberships are Soaring This Year
Membership Information for Fiscal Year 2012

The former delivers the good news so that when the reader looks at the chart, they can get right to how much money they are making. The latter title forces the reader to decipher the data that your chart is illustrating. The reader does not know yet if the news is good or bad. Titles like this hide the information behind an extra layer of text. The title becomes chart junk rather than information.

See How To Write Great Heds and Deks for more on writing titles and such.


Outside resources:
Edward Tufte on the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

Manager-Tools podcast: The Right Chart


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