Graphic vocabulary: Charts as words

Just been looking in detail at the latest great project from the NYT’s ‘BosCarQue’ triumvirate, visualising the history of college athletics in the US.


One of the elements that really grabbed me was the integration of a mini bar chart (sparkbars?) within the introduction text.


The idea of creating and embedding word-sized graphics into text is not new. Sparklines, as described below, are one of the most enduring ideas from Tufte’s heyday:

A sparkline is a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution. Sparklines mean that graphics are no longer cartoonish special occasions with captions and boxes, but rather sparkline graphic can be everywhere a word or number can be: embedded in a sentence, table, headline, map, spreadsheet, graphic. From Edward Tufte’s book Beautiful Evidence.

However, this is the first time I recall seeing it being used ‘in the wild’ (ie. not from Tufte’s texts) and done in a way that seemed so natural, so obvious and so seamlessly, as if a bar chart was just another component of our written vocabulary.

1 Comment

JonDecember 3rd, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Nice post, Andy. When it comes to the Tufte reference, I think a better, but less frequently used approach is the passage from a Galileo text in Beautiful Evidence (page 49). In it, Tufte shows how Galileo embedded drawings of the rings of Saturn right into the text. I have tried doing similar things, but publishers have squawked at doing so and instead require the good ol’ “Figure 1 says….”