Taking Data Chart Minimalism Too Far

Show the data and nothing but the data, right? We’ve all seen the trend towards minimalism in our charts and graphs. Sometimes this results in business dashboards populated by mysterious and tiny scratchings that only a true data visualization expert can understand.

In the recent issue of his Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter: Sometimes We Must Raise Our Voices, Stephen Few explains what he calls a “rare disagreement” with the principles of graph design as espoused by Edward Tufte (See The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Few begins with an explanation of the title of this issue:

When we create a graph, we design it to tell a story. To do this, we must fi rst fi gure out what the story is. Next, we must make sure that the story is presented simply, clearly, and accurately, and that the most important parts will demand the most attention. When we communicate verbally, there are times when we need to raise our voices to emphasize important points. Similarly, when we communicate graphically, we must find ways to make the important parts stand out visually.

He then tells the importance of Edward Tufte’s work on his own career path.

My original thinking about graph design was formed almost entirely by the work of Edward Tufte. I owe him not only for the formative development of my knowledge, but also for inspiring me to pursue this line of work in the first place. I left his one-day seminar over 10 years ago with my mind ablaze and my heart beginning to nourish the kernel of an idea that eventually grew into my current profession. Even after many years of working in the field of data visualization, which has involved a great deal of experience and study that has expanded my expertise into many areas that Tufte hasn’t specifically addressed, I have only on rare occasions discovered reasons to disagree with any of his principles. The topic that I’m addressing in this article, however, deals with one of those rare disagreements.

Now, isn’t that an interesting setup? Steve’s writing is always superb and the reason why I subscribe to his newsletter. Visit the Perceptual Edge site for details.

Getting back to the disagreement with Tufte, Few has some issues with carrying the idea of minimalism too far. He explains Tufte’s concept of keeping the Data-Ink Ratio high and minimizing Non-Data ink on a chart.

Data Ink Ratio

There are 2 graph design principles closely related to the Data Ink Ratio concept.

Erase non-data ink (within reason)
Erase redundant data-ink (within reason)

Few is in complete agreement with the first rule, but has problems with the second rule about erasing redundant data-ink.

He presents a series of charts based on Tufte examples where he shows the danger of taking the minimalist approach too far. Each successive chart shows an increasing level of minimalism (is that me speaking in an extremely backassward way or what?)

Ed tufte chart

Tutfe Few Graphs

Tufte minimal chart

Stephen Few demonstrates Tufte Data Ink Concept

and here is an alternative by Stephen Few:

Clear data visualization by Stephen Few

Read his post for his explanations of why Tufte’s charts may take data-ink redundancy removal too far.

Tags: Data Visualization, Stephen Few, Edward Tufte