The Quest for Graphical Excellence: Part 2 of 3

Last week, I gave an overview of Edward Tufte’s theory of graphical excellence: in short, that graphics should “give to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.” We probably all agree that project charts should be graphically excellent — otherwise, they’re a pain to look at and a chore for stakeholders to understand. But what does Tufte have to say about graphical excellence as it applies to project charts in particular?

As it happens, Tufte has written extensively on his feelings about “project management graphics,” as he calls them, in a 161+-post thread on his website (linked at the bottom of this article). A few general principles can be distilled — we don’t agree with all of them (more on that next week), but they are nevertheless worth knowing about as a serious practitioner of project graphics.

  • He hates most Gantt charts, aka project charts. About them, he writes, “The design of project charts appears to have regressed to Microsoft mediocrity: that is, nothing excellent and nothing completely useless.” Most project charts he sees on the Web are too simplistic, too spare, and too full of “chartjunk” (his term — see below). As an alternative, he recommends graphical timetables, such as this example below: the bullet train schedule in Japan, with time across the top and stations down the sides. I’m resisting the urge to editorialize here, since I will be critiquing Tufte next week. Until then, I present, without comment:
Graphical timetable example from Edward Tufte

From Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information (Graphics Press, 1990), p. 45.

  • If a Gantt chart must be created, he says, make it a wall chart, not a chart confined to a rectangle the size of your laptop screen or PowerPoint slide. “Computer screens are generally too small for an overview of big serious projects,” he writes. (We’ve debated the usefulness of wall charts on this blog: see a post agreeing with Tufte, and a dissent authored by yours truly.) At the heart of this argument is Tufte’s belief that project charts should convey complexity, not simplicity. He wants to see annotations, cost data, forward- and backward-looking schedule data, and so forth. That kind of detail just won’t fit on a screen, he says.
  • At the same time, project charts must avoid chartjunk, or ink used not for the visual representation of data but rather the aesthetics of the chart. A big source of chartjunk is gridlines, which we talked about last week. Most project charts are better off with as few gridlines as possible, so the viewer can focus on the data rather than the grid.

Not all of the hundreds of posts on this project graphics thread were authored by Tufte. Dozens of project managers — and musicians, writers, and other people who care about project charts — have joined the thread (which started 13 years ago!) to weigh in on what makes project graphics excellent. A few ideas from the assembled commenters are worth highlighting:

  • Swimlanes make project charts much easier to read. For example, if I have a project with resources Tom, Dick, and Harry, my chart could have three swimlanes, one for each of the tasks assigned to these three gents. See the example below.

Project chart with swimlanes (made in OnePager Express)

  • An alternative to cramming every piece of the schedule into one project chart (as Tufte advocates) is management by exception. Some project managers find it more effective to only emphasize tasks that are either behind schedule or over-budget. The project chart below does this — I made this in Microsoft Project and our own tool, OnePager Pro, by making tasks with the status “Late” 10 times taller than on-time tasks:

Project chart with tall late tasks and short on-time tasks (created in OnePager Pro)

  • Relatedly, audience matters. Some of your individual contributors probably do need to see every task of your 1,000-task project, but your executives certainly do not. Likewise, your engineers probably don’t need to see everything the marketing team is doing, and vice versa. Much frustration was expressed on the thread about walking the line between including enough detail for some audience members and avoiding excessive complexity for others. So the best tools for the job of creating project charts are those which can show a lot of detail to one audience and a high-level view to another.

So what do I make of all this, as someone who has looked at more project charts than I care to recall? I’ll turn a critical eye to Tufte and the other posters next week. In the meantime, here is a link to the full thread for you to read yourself.

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]

2 thoughts on “The Quest for Graphical Excellence: Part 2 of 3

  1. Thank you for a very interesting post Nathan. I will be setting aside time this weekend to review the thread you provided the link to.
    I wanted to share my experience at the program level of management. My experience is that communication with executive project sponsorship has a very specific form and flow.
    Focus on where sponsor engagement is needed to support the project team’s execution of the plan is the key element. This particular communication could be visualized as a classic Venn Diagram where the communication required exists at the intersection of 1) project details and 2) Sponsor responsibility/influence.
    As a result, communication must be focused only on items supporting the decision making process for the executive project sponsor. I find OnePager’s approach of separating the view from the source data is highly effective in this regard.
    The management by exception example you highlighted was particularly interesting to me, I haven’t taken that specific approach yet, but I look forward to incorporating that sort of view into my future communications.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, Robert, and of course we’re glad you’re getting good use out of OnePager! I agree that in all forms of communication — perhaps communication to executives most especially — a keen sense of the audience’s needs is paramount, and when it comes to graphics, less is more. Interestingly, Tufte and I don’t completely see eye to eye on this. More on that next week…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *