The Quest for Graphical Excellence: Part 1 of 3

In our line of work, we see a lot of project charts. We get them from customers, from potential customers, and yes, we make our own. Some look fantastic and tell stakeholders the story of a project. Others, unfortunately, fall short of their potential — unfortunate because million-dollar decisions can be made on the basis of these charts, and if they aren’t communicating effectively, those decisions may not be the right ones. Consider the infamous remark of General Stanley McChrystal when he saw the chart below on a PowerPoint slide: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

NATO in Afghanistan PowerPoint slide

Winning the war in Afghanistan, in one PowerPoint slide. Yikes. (From Elizabeth Bumiller, “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint,” The New York Times, April 26, 2010)

What makes an effective project chart? What makes a mediocre one? Of course there are many factors, but one of those most often overlooked is the chart-maker’s adherence to the theoretical principles of data visualization. Yes, they exist, and in this three-part series we’ll explore them.

Even though many project managers feel that making charts is a slapdash task, there really is both an art and a science to visualizing project data. A master of both the art and the science is Edward Tufte, Emeritus Professor of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University, and exhibitor at the ET Modern gallery in Manhattan. Since 1983, Tufte has written six major books and dozens of articles in search of the principle of graphical excellence.

“Graphical excellence,” Tufte wrote, “is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.” Central to this principle is the concept of the data-ink ratio. Let’s say you have a 500 x 800  project chart, which means it has 400,000 pixels. Perhaps 320,000 pixels are related to the display of start dates, finish dates, baselines, percent complete, etc. — the actual project data you are trying to communicate to your audience in visual form. Another 80,000 pixels are related to borders, gridlines, background colors, legal disclaimers, and so-forth — stuff not related to your data, but that has to be there for your audience to look at your screen and say, “Oh, OK, it’s a chart.” That gives your chart a data-ink ratio of 0.8 (pretty good). A graphically excellent chart has the highest data-ink ratio possible.

Let’s look at an example. Below, we start with a chart that has a lot of gridlines. The chart is technically readable, but there are a lot of lines competing with the data for the viewer’s attention.

Project chart with low data-ink ratio.

Notice, also, the repetition of the Category datum — it is used both as the row label and as the color in the legend. Sorting and color are two separate pieces of visual information, so there’s no reason they should be telling the viewer the exact same thing. Instead, in the revised version, we’ll remove the row labels (keeping the legend), while suppressing gridlines:

Project chart with increased data-ink ratio.

To the naked eye, this chart just “looks better.” But Tufte’s theory tells us there’s more to it than that. We’ve cut out non-data-related ink (also known as chartjunk), thereby increasing the data-ink ratio of the chart.

We don’t agree with Tufte on everything — in previous blog posts, we’ve clashed with him over whether legends are valuable, and over whether wall charts are useful project management tools. Nevertheless, Tufte is the undisputed giant in data visualization theory, and no good chart creator should be ignorant of his ideas.

Next week, we’ll explore what Tufte has to say about project charts, also known as Gantt charts, specifically. The following week, we’ll put on our critic hats and sketch out in a little more detail where we think Tufte is wrong.  In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Tufte’s ideas on your own, here’s a link to his website.

This entry was posted in Best Practices, Gantt Art, Project Visualization by Nathan. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nathan

Nathan Black was on the founding team of OnePager, joining as a beta tester in 2005. The product was exciting — the lack of paycheck, exciting in a different way. So he went out into the world, working as a project manager, management consultant, and academic (he was most recently a research fellow in the Government Department at Harvard University). Everywhere he went, he saw a need for more and better project management, particularly by people who don’t call themselves project managers but end up filling that role on teams and ventures large and small. In 2014, he returned to OnePager as Vice President of Solutions. His primary roles are (1) helping customers use OnePager more effectively and (2) developing new versions of the software. He is passionate about getting project visualization and reporting right, and eager to hear from project managers (in title or in reality) who feel the same way! Nathan lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife Whitney and sons Ethan and Adam. They enjoy classical music, the outdoors, and politics. E-mail him at [email protected].

One thought on “The Quest for Graphical Excellence: Part 1 of 3

  1. I always hide the legends in Smartsheet Gantt charts – I agree w Prof Tufte that they can be chartjunk and cover informational space in many cases. If one is necessary it should be as small as is consistent with legibility.

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