Thursday, November 3, 2011

visual makeover: income and expenses

When I present my storytelling with data class, the second half of the session is typically conducted as an interactive workshop. I ask participants to submit graphs that they have created or encountered and would like feedback on and pick a handful that we focus on in small groups. After the groups have dissected the visuals in light of the course learnings, we discuss together and I review my own makeovers of the selected visuals.

The following visual is one that we focused on in a past session. The audience was comprised of grant-makers from philanthropic organizations. Here is the original visual that was submitted:

Those who know me are familiar with my opinion on 3D. In short: don't do it! Here, not only are the bars 3D, but with different rotation set on each of the charts (I think in part due to the different placement of the legend). I guess to spice things up? Hmmm.... (don't do it!)

I believe there are two root issues that lead to all of the problems with these graphs:
  1. Not enough time was spent considering what's most critical to share with the audience. What do they need to know? Is it how income and expenses have changed over time? they breakdown in a given period? they relate to each other? Because no decision was made on which information is crucial (or at least that decision isn't reflected in what's shown), the visuals don't answer any of these questions very well. In other words, by trying to show too much, the visual isn't showing anything particularly effectively.
  2. Excel makes it easy to do bad things. Some of it is the default settings (gridlines, colors, trailing zeroes on axis labels); some of it was done on purpose (most notably, 3D...don't do it!)

The changes I recommended are as follows:
  • Strip out clutter: gridlines, extraneous axis label digits, 3D, meaningless color
  • I don't think the historical income/expenses are necessary
  • Add a story in words: help the audience understand what they should know
  • Make the title active vs. descriptive (use this prime real estate wisely!)
Here is what it looks like when these changes are made:

What do you think? One piece of feedback I received from the participants was concern that an audience might perceive rows and read across (comparing Program expenses to Grants income, for example), which doesn't make sense. I think this could be solved by drawing a light vertical line between the expenses and income graphs.

Here (as elsewhere), I present my makeover not as the right answer, but as one possible solution to a data visualization challenge by someone who knows a little about and takes care in the visual design of her data graphics. I've made the assumption here that the most recent year's breakdown of income and expenses is the most important. If that is not the case, then this is not the right visual. If income and expenses over time is also important, you could perhaps show something like the following.

If both the breakdown of income and expenses as well as how they've trended over time are important, I'd definitely recommend breaking them into two different visuals, as I've done above, and making the relevant point on each vs. trying to cram it all into one visual.

What is your view? Leave a comment with your thoughts!


  1. Nice transformation Cole. Just wondering if the videos of the class you teach is available online on web ?


  2. Hi Abhi - No, not at this point, but that's a cool thought that I may look into. Thanks for your note!

  3. Nice review and improvement Cole. Personally I don't like the side by side bar chart because it leads me to compare the two bars next to each other, which you shouldn't necessarily do in this case. How about a waterfall chart? If you can send me the data, I can build one to show you what it would look like.

    Great blog! I'm glad I found it.

  4. Hi Cole. I've posted my take on my blog.

  5. I agree with the concern that viewers might assume items on the same row are somehow related or being compared, even if a dividing line is added. Could the two sides be positioned vertically instead of horizontally? Otherwise, though, great point about not simply graphing all the data and leaving it to viewers to find meaningful conclusions.

  6. I'm trying to create a bar chart (or charts) similar to the grey/blue income/expenses one above (and in my case the it will be appropriate to compare the bars next to each other on the same row). I am out of practice with graphing though, and having a hard time making this work.
    Cole, do you have the file for your chart above? Or do you know of any good resource for creating something similar to this? I actually need three separate pieces on one row instead of two (similar concept: money in, money here, money out) with one row for each year. Any help you (or your readers) can provide would be very helpful.

    1. Hi Rachel,

      Send me an email ( and I'll send you the Excel file. You may also find the following post helpful:

      I love doing makeovers, so if you would be willing to share your data and some details on the story you want to tell, I can also take a crack at it (assuming you'd be ok with me using a generalized example in a blog post).

      Based on your description of what you want to show, a waterfall chart may also work (more info here:

      I hope this helps!