The little of visualisation design: Part 38

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design concerns a nice styling approach to annotating charts. The work in question was published in The Washington Post by Reuben Fischer-Baum and covers analysis that answers this question: “Does your team botch the NFL draft?“.

There are many things to enjoy in this project but I was struck by the subtle impact of the hand-sketched style of the chart annotations. As you can see these notations point out tips for how to read the chart but also illuminate certain features of data that are of particular interest and/or offer some domain context that might explain the effect seen.

By presenting these annotations in a completely different style to the chart’s standard look-and-feel it creates a neat distinction with, for example, the chart’s value/axis labels. In contrast, these items of chart apparatus are (rightly) relegated to a somewhat utilitarian role with the sketchy notes jumping to the surface, offering small snippets of commentary in written form that you might otherwise verbalise and point to if you were presenting it live. The example shown above is just one of several charts that employ this technique

The little of visualisation design: Part 37

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design concerns the small way in which a chart can immediately lose any sense of elegance. The chart in question was published in The Times overnight showing some latest modelling data from YouGov about the upcoming UK election.

If you look down the y-axis you’ll notice the irregular space used to accommodate the ‘Plaid Cymru’ label. Unlike most of the other parties, no abbreviation or acronym has been used here which essentially means a double-row space is used, breaking up the visual rhythm of the arrangement of the bars.

I know I’m probably guilty of being that guy but even though it might only be ‘only’ a bar chart we should still care about its appearance. This irregularity in space usage creates a jarring interruption to the flow of reading. Consistency is one of the most important concerns in visualisation design – consistency in line spacing, consistency in alignment, consistency in font, consistency in category label format. Why not reduce the label to PC? If you are interested in politics you’ll know what this stands for just as much as you’ll know what NI, SNP or LD stands for (incidentally, why not use ‘Con’ rather than C for Conservatives?). Here’s a photoshop reworking…

The little of visualisation design: Part 36

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design concerns a clever way of cleaning up space and maximising the role of gridlines. The visualisation in focus here is from a few years ago and is one of my favourites for teaching, it comes from the New York Times and looks at the achievement of Peyton Manning breaking the record for the number of career touchdown passes.

What I like here is the cropping of the horizontal gridlines indicating the position of the 400 and 500 values along the y-axis scale. Only three players have ever reached or exceeded these figures in their careers so it makes sense just to provide this reading assistance to the right of the chart where these lines are plotted. This in turn cleans up the overall display on the left, enabling the title and lede to occupy the empty space left behind by not having fully extended gridlines.

The little of visualisation design: Part 35

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design concerns the value of consistent composition and style when using photo-imagery as an encoding or annotation device. The visualisation in focus here comes from the Washington Post and reflects on ‘Trump at 100 days‘.

It might appear to be a relatively simple matter, but gathering and preparing photo-imagery, especially people-based subjects like in the sequence of Presidential head-and-shoulders in this piece, can involve a lot of effort sourcing, editing and compiling each one. It is easy to take the elegance of the final solution for granted, especially in the pressured environment of media/news publishing: it is far more obvious to the eye when this effort has been absent – inconsistent face sizes, a jarring range of different facial expressions, subjects facing different directions, cropped foreheads, lack of care over the original image outlining/cropping.

Look closely at these and if we are being extraordinarily picky, you’d say the JFK (looking slightly upwards) and Eisenhower (facing to the right) images feel slightly inconsistent with the rest and I might have re-sized Clinton’s face a little larger to reduce the impact of his prominent shoulders, but there are always contextual factors to weigh up. Otherwise these look super nice, occupying the circular bubbles really neatly and with a suitable, cohesive overall style.

Other matters also come to the surface: what image would be most representative of Barack Obama, the young fresh-faced ‘yes we can’ guy or the grey-haired sage ‘I need a holiday’ guy? Do I have permission to use this image? The overall point is that this stuff isn’t always straightforward.

(Incidentally, look through the full project, see the ‘Washington DC’ diamond being used, perhaps similar to #LittleVis 33?

The little of visualisation design: Part 34

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design is a somewhat agonising choice, such is the variety of brilliant ‘little’ things on offer to select (a ‘we are not worthy’ Wayne’s World bow to the mini, multiple Marimekko charts), but in the end I decided to focus on the very final feature included in the project. The visualisation work here comes from Periscopic and is a study of the ‘The Emotional Highs and Lows of Donald Trump‘.

The simple thing that just struck a chord with me here – perhaps amplified given the subject matter – is the respect, care and attention given by the creators to equip the audience with comments on the degree of accuracy this data portrays. The data plotted is gathered from emotions as analysed and recorded by the Microsoft Emotion API. It is an inexact science, a technique still developing in its sophistication but nevertheless it is a worthy approach to automate and summarise the detection of emotion through video, as described in the comprehensive descriptive text.

By specifically including the ‘Accuracy’ statement, the folks at Periscopic demonstrated the first principle (in my view) of good visualisation practice: ‘trustworthiness’. This transcends the goal of accuracy in a way because not everything can or will be 100% accurate. This doesn’t mean we can’t still portray this data, rather it means we have a responsibility to be transparent, equipping an audience with confidence and/or an understanding about what data they are seeing, what shortcomings may exist and advising on the amount of ‘pinch of salt’ they need to shape any interpretations or conclusions.

The little of visualisation design: Part 33

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design is a rather subtle matter concerning an example of how to squeeze out an extra final percent of creative design thinking. The project in focus comes from Dutch studio Clever Franke and is a new tool called ‘District Mobility‘, which visualizes the transportation demands in Washington DC and enables people to understand the bigger picture.

The simple matter to comment on here is the repeated utilisation and symbolic consistency in the use of the diamond-like shape of Washington DC. This is such a fantastic shape to work with, in the first instance, as a region for plotting thematic analysis and, secondly, as a visual archetype for different interactive and data mark features across the entire project.

In amongst the urgency and pressures of developing a visualisation solution, the best designers in this field have that extra sixth-sense and presence of mind to spot opportunities like this: to see patterns of form emerging that can be used in a way to bind a project together as a whole. Sometimes these things can prove to offer only gimmicks or represent metaphors that are too stretched and/or cliched, but when they work well they can really enhance a piece.

The little of visualisation design: Part 32

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design concerns judging your maximum axis scale when handling outlier values. The project in focus comes from the New York Times in an article ‘Is Terrorism Getting Worse? In the West, Yes. In the World, No.‘. One of the charts looks at the annual trends of terrorism-related deaths in the USA going back to the 1970s.

Clearly, in this dataset, the 2977 victims of the tragedy of September 11th 2001 stands as a huge outlier compared to the general trend and one may have normally plotted this chart with a maximum range up to ~3000 to accommodate this largest value. However, in this case, the analysis is focused on the framing the underlying trend which supports the view that terrorist atrocities are of relatively lower prevalence in the US compared to other regions of the ‘west’ (the full article provides prior context for this with other analysis).

In support of the main point, the maximum y-axis value is astutely capped to accommodate the second highest value (the 170 victims of the Oklahoma City bombings), which slices the top of the rising peak for 2011. The designer is not remotely seeking to downplay the significance of 9/11 nor diminish the significance of the loss of life of every one of the victims, but the point here is to position this count as outrageously larger compared to the norm. Sometimes cropping large values is justified to position them as (legitimate) non-typical outlier values and to allow a clearer perception of the pattern across the smaller values.

The little of visualisation design: Part 31

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design concerns a sensible way of offering ‘help’ to readers of a visualisation. I’m referring to a project developed by Accurat in partnership with the Google News Lab called ‘World Potus’. This work was developed during the US Elections to track the popularity, trends and locations of topics people from outside the US were most interested searching about on Google relating to the Election.

It is often necessary to provide a degree of functional (how to use it) and perceptual (how to read it) guidance with a visualisation and often this involves maybe a ‘i’ or ‘?’ button taking you to a descriptive page of guidance. The problem with approaches like this (hands up, on reflection I’ve done this almost always) is that as a user/reader you are often taken away from the screen of interest. This makes the guidance somewhat detached and relies on your memory.

What I liked about the solution in this project was the way pressing the ‘HELP’ button simply overlayed the guidance on top of the screen you were looking at getting help with. This proximity cemented the instruction. Additionally, with a seamless switch on/switch off (or clicking ‘Got it’) you could quickly bounce between the help view and normal view without too much obstruction or delay.

The little of visualisation design: Part 30

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design concerns the inclusion of tangible ‘call to action’ instructions/invitations. For this I’m referring to a project developed by FFunction for the ONE campaign titled ‘Making the connection: How the internet can help end extreme poverty‘. This work, presented as a scrollable visual article, explores the inequalities of world wide access to the Internet, focusing on the fact that ~75% of Africa is offline and, of those who are online, there is a clear gender disparity.

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There are several aspects of design in this project I like but one small component that particularly struck me of interest was the inclusion (after having scrolled through about half the report) of a prominent ‘call to action’ event, initially in the page footer but eventually as the final stop on the scrollable path.

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Not every visualisation has the intent of driving action to change behaviours, to change beliefs or even to directly influence immediate decision-making processes. Many can only, will only and need only aspire to inform, leaving consequential actions down to the capacity and appetite of the reader. However, when your purpose is clearly aimed at trying to motivate action then making clear what this action is through visible, obvious and seamless instructions is clearly clever thinking.

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Again, your own work may not involve such tangible or simple actions (as in, ‘logging your email address’ simple) like this but, on those occasions when it is relevant, think about not just what you want your readers to learn from your work but also what you want them to do.

The little of visualisation design: Part 29

This is part of a series of posts about the ‘little of visualisation design’, respecting the small decisions that make a big difference towards the good and bad of this discipline. In each post I’m going to focus on just one small matter – a singular good or bad design choice – as demonstrated by a sample project. Each project may have many effective and ineffective aspects, but I’m just commenting on one.


The ‘little’ of this next design concerns the use of small annotated marks to help draw a reader towards exceptional ‘values’. For the second consecutive #LittleVis piece I’m referring to work from the Financial Times, this time from an article titled ‘How prepared is Britain for extreme weather?‘ written by Oliver Ralph. The graphic is at the bottom of the page and was produced by John Burn-Murdoch. It looks at the patterns of monthly rainfall across Great Britain up to 2014 and going back to 1960. It is tall in dimension so this is just an excerpt from the top.

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With such a dense display formed by 660 individual map panels, there is a lot for the readers’ eyes to process. Even with the known capability of the eye to efficiently scan such displays for the key patterns, it significantly helps the reader to include annotated markings (‘editorial overlays’), in this case colour-coded squares, to quickly emphasise the main periods of significance to this story.

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