Thursday, April 10, 2014

just because you have numbers doesn't mean you need a graph

I subscribe to updates from the Pew Research Center. They arrive in my inbox with subject lines like "Future of Internet, News Engagement, God and Morality" (yes, this was an actual title from their March 13th update - quite a span of topics!) and probably 90% of the time get moved to my trash without a second thought. But in a fraction of cases, something in that subject line catches my eye and I open the email to read more. Sometimes, this even prompts me to click further to the full article.

The snippet that caught my attention this time was "Stay-at-Home Mothers on the Rise." The link I clicked on within my email brings you here.

A quick scan through and I found that I was hardly able to focus on the article because of the issues plaguing the visuals that accompany it. There are many. But I'll focus on just a single one today and keep this rant very short and sweet:

Just because you have numbers doesn't mean you need a graph!

The following graph prompted this adage:

That's a whole lot of text and space for a grand total of two numbers. The graph does nothing to aid in the interpretation of numbers here! Even the fact that 20 is less than half of 41 doesn't really come across clearly here visually (perhaps because of the way the numbers are place above the bars?).

Rather, the above can be conveyed in a single sentence:
20% of children had a "traditional" stay-at-home mom in 2012 (compared to 41% in 1970). 

Just because you have numbers doesn't mean you need a graph!

For a less ranting delivery of a similar lesson, check out my post the power of simple text.


  1. Imagine if they had annual data, then #1 a graph would make sense and #2 there would be potential to match it up with potential driving factors. :-D

  2. 9 out of 10 readers agree (if only I could comment with a graph to get my point across more clearly) :)

  3. In fairness, the report does summarize the graph in two sentences:

    "One-in-five U.S. children today are living in a household with a married stay-at-home mother and her working husband. In 1970, 41% of children lived in this type of household."

    Let's consider the context of the graph, which is in a 20+ page, text-heavy research paper. In the report, there are no full pages of text that do not also have a chart, graph, or call-out of some kind.

    With this in mind, this graph is very likely a design decision to break up a wall of text, as without it there would be an entire page without any visuals. The use of the graph could be an intentional choice by Pew to cater to those who are skimming while the policy wonks do the reading.

    If this were in a presentation on a slide by itself then I would share your sense of overkill, but given its context and considering its audiences I think it's fine.

  4. Very good point. With simple text may be highlight the numbers would have been more visually appealing. As we have two numbers only, could a pie have been a better choice? ?

  5. Love your work, Cole. Single graph with text does lend nicely to posting on Twitter where visuals pack a big punch.