Tower graphics

October 14, 2010 in Data,Internet

Max Gadney writes on the rise of "tower graphics" - those giant infographics popping up all over the net which require scrolling endlessly to follow their narratives.

He notes:

Every time I try to hate these, I imagine people who are just interested in the facts finding them easy to use. (albeit hard to search and re-size etc etc).

This immediate gratification is something quite satisfying. Tom mentioned it is echoed in the production of flash movies which bake in all  their content - the baking-in helping their sendability and virality. Often these tower graphics comment on popular ideas, again, making them sendable social currency. Other baked in stuff, going against the open, searchable text principles are the explosion of informative videos like here.

Well, let me say: I do hate these things. Having to scroll to collect morsels of information is almost (but not quite!) as bad as a non-ajax'd slideshow.

The reason these things are so big is because their designers think that large type + bold colors = information. It doesn't. Typography and design are critical elements of proper data presentation, to be sure, but they alone do not constitute "good visualization."

Max shows two large infographics at the top of his post. (I will not - can not - bear to display them hear. I'm sorry.) The first outlines a few notes about each version of Windows, headlined by the year in which the OS was released. That's the extent of its quantitative (read: data) aspects. The rest of its length is dominated by images of the software's loading screens accompanied by small paragraphs of text. This would have made a perfect slideshow.

The second asks us to imagine a "world without Apple", accompanied by two enormous two-tone graphics of I'm-not-sure-what (or why). This is followed by a bizarre mix of lines, bars, spokes and text annotations, all taking far too much space to convey a very simple set of information.

The most egregious flaw, in my mind, is at the bottom of the graphic, where a note about "250,000+ applications" is accompanied by 132 Apple icons. I had to count them twice to confirm there were, in fact, 132 -- the first four rows contain 30 and the last row contains 12. Why represent each group of 1,893.9 applications with one icon? I have no idea. Why lay them out in a ragged array? Again, no idea. At least the "28,000 developers" that followed were represented by one icon per 1,000 people - no fractions here. Why use these icons at all? The numbers alone were more than sufficient -- icons are only useful if they convey additional meaning (they don't here, since they only serve to demonstrate the number) or are used to visually compare two quantities (they don't do that either, since they use different scales and are not laid out on the same grid). No, the icons are typical of the "eyeballs over information" attitude that these tower graphics represent.

I do completely agree with Max that these graphics provide "social currency" -- a one stop shop for information that can be posted or distributed with little hassle -- and that is their most compelling aspect. So what if they break every principle about storage, searching or data presentation? This stuff is viral!

Are there good tower graphics? I don't consider the NYT's excellent visualization work to conform to the genre, but apparently people feel that this piece does. If so, then yes -- it's an excellent tower graphic. I do believe it could have been made smaller on the vertical scale, saving me from having to scroll (remember - I can only compare what I can see!). Then it would have been an even more excellent non-tower graphic. But that's just splitting hairs.

(via Daring Fireball)

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