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© 2010 Ugur Akinci
Sometimes information design takes off in directions mostly because we have the tools; mostly because “yes, we can!”
However, whether such a design is an improvement over the good’old plain table is a topic open to discussion.
Here is one such design illustrating President Obama’s most important policy initiatives since the day he took office:
(click the image to see a larger version)
I do love NPR. I think it’s arguably one of the grandest platforms in public broadcasting. I listen to it everyday. There have been many days when I could not get out of my car in my driveway until a certain program reached its delicious conclusion.
However, with all due respect, I also have to maintain that the above animated chart really falls short of the mark of excellence that NPR is otherwise known for.
Here are the aspects of this design that are open to improvement:
(1) What’s the VERTICAL axis? We have no idea. And why is it divided into three bands of EQUAL width? Does this mean that all these 3 CATEGORIES of policy initiatives, regardless of date and content, are equally important? Why is, for example, the “pledge to help Central Africans” (a BROWN bar) is of the same length and width as the “televised speech from the Oval Office” addressing the BP oil spill (a BLUE bar)? How should we compare these two events? The graphic does not provide any clue at all other than the vague visual suggestion that they are equally significant, which is not the case.
(2) What is the significance of the STACKING ORDER of multiple initiatives that fall on the same date? Sometimes the green bar is on top of the blue, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Why? Does TOP mean “more important”? If not, why stack the bars in vertical dimension? Again, the graphic does not provide us with a reliable and meaningful way to COMPARE these different policy initiatives.
(3) The horizontal axis is MONTHS without YEARS. So as we go back in time, we have figure out which year we’re in. Although not a terribly difficult intellectual task, it still makes us think for no good reason at all. And the first rule of information design is “be obvious and don’t make them think!” This objection could’ve been met easily by simply jotting down the years along the X axis.
The QUESTION is this: would it have been worse if the same data were presented in terms of a FOUR COLUMN TABLE, each row showing a DATE RECORD? The columns would show 3 different policy categories, in different color codes. That way at one look we could easily tell which type of policy moves were taken on which date.
What’s more, since it’s easier to write inside a TABLE CELL, the content of each policy move could be included in the table, removing the need to line up our cursor with a tiny sliver of an event bar and read the event inside a pop-up window.
Creating a complicated artwork out of a simple table when a simple table can display the same information in a more obvious manner is something we should all refrain from as professional technical communicators.