Information visualization: take the red pill

“To clarify, add detail”, says Edward Tufte.

A richer, more detailed picture, is a solid foundation for your decision-making processes. But to add detail you need a higher resolution display device (be that a computer screen or a sheet of paper), as we saw in the previous post.

Now, regarding the use of resolution, you have a “take the red/blue pill” kind of choice:

  • You take the red pill, accept Tufte’s advice and you’ll get more insights from your data
    • You take the blue pill, buy the stuff most vendors want you to buy and you stay under the illusion of the “professional looking chart”;

Let me detail the blue pill option. According to a large majority of vendors, we should get higher and higher resolutions, yes, but only to admire how eye-catching their products are, how well rendered, even if they display less and less actual data points. For the untrained eye, they may look like a Ferrari, but there’s a Tata underneath.

In reality, vendors and knowledgeable users have different agendas. Users want higher screen resolution to accommodate more data, while vendors want it because it makes they products look… “cool”? Apparently, in the mass market, form and function are strange to each other.
Let me exemplify the problem with a typical pie chart. I already gave my two cents for the never ending discussion around the sins and virtues of pie charts, so I will not do it again soon.

What I want to emphasize is that you can’t have more than five or six data points in a pie chart, but if you add texture to make it glow you will need to remove some data points and enlarge the chart. You need more space (= larger charts) in order for texture to be noticed, and there goes better (for efficient) information visualizations.

Unlike scientific visualization (that usually creates digital models of objects), information visualization focus on abstract concepts, like “inflation rate” or “market share”. You can’t add texture to market share. A chart is a “metaphoric space” where some objects (points, lines, rectangles) stand for an abstract concept, and we infer something from their relative positions in space.

So, you have a large, high-resolution computer monitor and also a high end color printer. You have the option between texture and detail. You can’t have both. Choosing detail you are focusing on the data and how to squeeze the juice out of it. Choosing texture you are adopting a marketing posture whereby you are not selling insights, you are selling yourself (it is an option, and some times you’ll need it). Or worse, in your naivety, you believe that information visualization is just a glowing 3D pie chart. Believe me, it is not.

So, what color is your pill?

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