Are Gantt Charts Data Visualization or Infographics?

Human beings have been using visuals to communicate for some 40,000 years. Whether it’s a cave painting of a deer or a complex, computer-generated chart showing the steps involved in building a rocket, the aim is the same: Get the information across as efficiently as possible, in a universally understandable manner. Visuals rely on language and cultural cues significantly less than spoken or written words; in many ways, they’re simply easier for (most people’s) brains to process.

But while visual communication is universal and timeless, all forms of visual communication are not the same. Doing what we do, we’ve gotten to know this fact quite well.

To wit, when we explain Gantt chart creation software to people we’ve just met, we typically hear one of two things:

  • “Oh, it’s for data visualization!”
  • “So, it makes infographics!”

The answer is somewhere in the middle. To explain why, let’s take a look at both data visualization and infographics, then think a bit about how they apply to summary timelines used for project management.

Data visualization was described quite aptly by Michael Friendly as the “graphic portrayal of quantitative information.” At its best, it’s objective, and offers the viewer a clear understanding of the data being shown. Whether it’s in the form of a graph, a chart or a timeline, the goal is accessibility, and making sense of (often complex) information.

poppyfield.org

An example of classic data visualization from the sobering poppyfield.org.

Infographics, meanwhile, are meant to tell a story of the data. This adds a level of subjectivity to their creation, and makes them suitable for both quantitative and qualitative information.

Star Trek - svivovik.ru

Star Trek, in infographic form. (h/t http://svinovik.ru)

What does that mean for project Gantt charts or summary timeline graphics? They’re certainly composed of quantitative information – real dates, real dependencies, etc. But they’re also meant to tell a story – explaining where a project is, how it’s tracking against expectations and budget, and when certain steps (and the entire thing) will be completed. Thus, they’re infographics used for the purpose of data visualization – the nexus of two very distinct forms of visual communication.

OnePager Gantt chart

A project summary Gantt chart, made using OnePager software.

And if 40 millennia have taught us anything, that’s a powerful thing.

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