Saturday, February 4, 2012

grables and taphs

graph + table = grable?

It seems to roll off the tongue better than taphs

The question is this: can you combine the visual power of a graph with the detail of a table? I think the answer is yes. Let's look at an example.

As I prepare for an upcoming webinar with the European Foundation Centre (EFC), I've been scouring the websites of European philanthropic organizations to understand how they are visualizing data currently. One item I came across was the following table, which is from the City Bridge Trust:

I know the text is small and hard to read. But then, that's part of the point - that you have to read it. That's one drawback of tables - because you have to read them to start to tease out information, you don't get the immediate ah ha! moment that can be so powerful with graphs. But it's sometimes hard to show as much detail in graphs as you can get cleanly with a table. For example, the table above would be a mess of uninterpretable data if you tried to put it all into a single graph. 

I'll go back to my original question: what if we can pair the immediate visual information you get with a graph with the detail of the table? Introducing the grable:

I think I like it... You get some immediate information in the shape of the bars. There's more info there to read to get all the detail. Perhaps this visual is giving us the best of both worlds? Or perhaps it's utterly confusing (what are bars doing in my table???)? What do you think? Can you imagine yourself using a grable? Be brutally honest. Leave me a comment with your thoughts.

If you're interested in how I made this happen from a tactical standpoint, you can check out my Excel file here.


  1. I like the look and cleanliness of this, but can't see why you NEED the Trust and Index rank (i.e., why they matter). Perhaps it just needs a footnote or something else, but I can't easily see why or how the rankings relate to the information in the bar.

    No criticism without a solution. Perhaps you could have color-coded the bars to show the relative Index ranks (1-5 is blue, 6-10 is red, etc) -- if those Index ranks are important (and if they're not, why include them?).

    For that matter, the Trust ranks look like they represent the order from largest to smallest grant amount, so I almost think you could have eliminated them, or just numbered the Boroughs and achieved the same result with fewer columns.

  2. I agree with Peter, questioning the necessity of the rank and index columns. If the rank is required it could simply go to the left of the Borough name in grey.

    I like the technique of reversing the digits when they exceed the length of the bars.

    Although there is more info in the revamp, it looks like less. The bars give a quick sense of quantum, while retaining all the detail. For instance you can quickly see there are 8 boroughs that receive the largest dispensations... with a (small) step down to the next group.

    The white text of a medium value light blue in the original table does not help it's readability ... especially for small text, so the increased contrast of the revamp is welcome to the eyes.

    Good work Cole.

  3. Showing the bars is definitely helpful - I really like the way Excel 2010 includes Conditional Formatting that makes this much easier to do than before. Who knows, maybe even finance people will one day start using "grables" instead of tables!

    Putting this data into Tableau would allow you to size the bars based on amount and color them based on rank (whichever you want). Not sure that Excel Conditional Formatting can do that...


  4. another idea would be to put the Borough name in the blue bar instead of the numeric value. You can put the numeric value just to the left. At the end of the day, at a glance, you may want to know which "bar" is the largest.. avoiding the external label helps save a few microseconds :)


  5. Nice post Cole!

    quick question, is there any particular reason why you decided to do left aligning in the trust rank, index rank and number of grants columns instead of right aligning the text in those columns? ...just like Stephen Few says in his show me the numbers book.

    Does that has to do with the fact that the amount approved graph has the data labels on the left?


  6. In regards to the left-alignment question: you could certainly play with right-alignment for the text column. I do often do that with graphics like this for ease of reading. I don't have a good reason for not doing it here, other than I liked the aesthetic consistency of left-alignment throughout the table. Sometimes it just comes down to personal preference!

    Thanks for the comments everyone!