Mar 052013

My problem with most infographics is that they sacrifice accuracy and clarity for whimsy and cuteness. While I understand the desire to “draw the reader” in, I believe it’s critical that the information and the story not be misleading.

So, imagine my delight when I thought I had found an infographic that was spot-on accurate and fun and engaging.

Last month a friend had posted a link to a Huffington Post article about the Ten Most Read Books in the World.  This article contained Jared Fanning’s clever  infographic.

Wow, I thought, this is fun, clever, and clear.

But then I saw that the zero value for the Y-axis was in the middle of the chart and realized that the graphic was very misleading.  If you don’t look carefully you would think that readership of The Holy Bible is a little more than twice that of The Diary of Anne Frank.  If, however, you hide the clever part of the graphic and have the y-axis start at zero, you see a much more accurate interpretation of the data.

So, how would I display the data?

If I did not feel pressure to be mirthful I would go with something like this (rendered using Tableau 8 in about five minutes):

If I felt compelled to add some eye candy I might try something like this:

Then I would spend around three hours trying to make the book icons easier to read.

By the way, I’m the first to admit that this approach is not nearly as much “fun” as the first infographic.

But this graphic is accurate and clear, and that has to come first.

Note: One of the problems with the data itself is that The Holy Bible so dwarfs most of the other books.  I did experiment with a Bubble chart (see below) but didn’t want to spent valuable time getting all the book icons to be “just so.”


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 Posted by on March 5, 2013 3) Mostly Monthly Makeovers, Blog Tagged with: , , ,  Add comments

  8 Responses to “Infographics Behaving Badly”

Comments (8)
  1. Classic example of skewing the truth via poor design. Thanks Steve!

  2. Nice work.  An alternative to your bubble chart would be to replace the bubbles with the icons of the books.

    • Andy, I thought of that, but would then have to “work” to make sure the area of the book icons was proportionately correct. I’m sure Joe Mako has some obscure software program up his sleeve that will do this in five minutes, but I didn’t want to bother.

  3. Also your bubble chart is not really useful.

    The bubble for “The Lord of the Rings” (103M) is the same size as the bubble for “The Diary of Anne Frank” (27M).

  4. Joe, you are correct, but this appears to be a problem with Tableau’s algorithm.  Apparently, anything less than a certain percentage smaller than the biggest item is considered “smallest”.  If I exclude the bible (with the largest bubble now going to Mao), the other bubbles size proportionately.

  5. I really like the desing in the original (other than the misleading axis). I think one easy solution for the redesign would be to add a “shelf” so that the books are separated by some space from the bar graph. This would be simple to do and would give the designer the same design effects without sacrificing the integrety of the bar chart. This is a crude redesign to demonstrate the idea.

  6. Take 2 using Photoshop this time. I think the extra space between shelves is better. This version allows for the great design without distorting the message with a broken axis.

  7. Jeffrey,

    I gave a data visualization class earlier this week and showed the attendees your approach.  All of the students liked it, but we all wondered if we first had to see the “before” picture before we could understand why you split the shelves.

    Now, if we didn’t have to deal with such a large gap between the largest and smallest amounts, the original approach would work great.  For example, if we just plotted the New York Times’ ten best-selling books of 2012 we would probably have amounts that are within the same order of magnitude, and the “let’s use the book spine as a bar” approach would work fine.


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