I have a confession to make. I think graphs are ugly. I know there are people out there in the world who find nothing more appealing than the freckles of a scatterplot or the smooth curve of a best-fit line. I am not among them. I appreciate their use, but as far as I am concerned, the best a graph can be is inoffensive.
And then there are the graphs that don’t even aspire towards inoffensiveness. Cluttered, colorless, with nearly illegible axes and pages of explanation that speak for the graph, these products of textual analysis may be of great import to their creators, but they are an affront to my sensibilities.
I would love to write a manifesto of visual aesthetics (actually, I think there’s a manifesto generator somewhere on the web that will do it for me), but both time and my own lack of knowledge prohibits me from doing so. You should all be grateful. I will, however, ask all you graphers, mappers and networkers to ask yourself the following questions when you decide to develop a useful and informative graph. (This means that if your goal is to push the limits of pure play or to create an image of beauty that may only be tangentially related to the original data, you are excused. You have other things to do. I am directing this request towards those who seem to feel that aesthetic concerns fade away in the face of simply displaying data.)
Is my visualization telling a story? All visualizations have stories even if the only story is about word usage in a given 19th century novel. But my question is whether the visualization itself is telling the story. Does it need explanatory passages? Does it need its creator standing by its side, helpfully telling you what it can’t articulate. Because if your visualization isn’t speaking for your data, then what is it for? If your purpose is to make something that was hidden become clear, then your data must make it clear. Your graph must speak for itself.
Given the confines of the data and analysis I am dealing with, could this be prettier? The answer is almost always yes. Even if all you do is change the default colors and resize the chart area, you will make a difference. I want to be able to stare at your visualization without feeling as though the fuzzy black dots are about to crawl off the page or as though the fire-engine red and the neon yellow are competing for the coveted prize of loudest shade. Look at your visualization and ask yourself whether, if you saw it on a wall, you would move closer to take a look or back away slowly. If you answer the latter, then please think about making some purely cosmetic changes. Both your data and I will thank you.
I’ll continue to think about this theme of making the useful beautiful as I explore what visualizations are supposed to do and how they do it, but, as they say, I just needed to get this out of my system.