Home > Charting, Data Journalism, Inspiration > A Tale of Two Illustrations

A Tale of Two Illustrations

If you don’t have a map, all roads look the same.

This blog strives to make BNA’s writers and editors more knowledgeable about the use graphics. Recently we published an insightful analysis about the Federal budget: “Do-Nothing’ Option Would Cut Deficit Fastest.” We got hung up on deciding between two illustrations to accompany the story.

Budget Data Presented as Table

Budget Data Presented as Graphs

A great map to guide us is Stephen Few’s book “Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten.” Few provides us with a succinct guide to making our decision (p. 239)…

When to Use Tables vs. Graphs

Use Tables When
  1. The document will be used to look up individual values.
  2. The document will be used to compare individual values.
  3. Precise values are required.
Use Graphs When
  1. The message is contained in the shape of the values.
  2. The document will be used to reveal relationships among multiple values.

So the answer is to be found in our story. To select between the two illustrations we should look for guidance in what our story is aiming to accomplish. The author sets out the goal at the top of the story…

compare the extent and speed of deficit reduction among the major proposals…

Presenting this data as a table provides our subscribers with little help in seeing the key points of the analysis. A table is just a bunch of numbers, leaving the reader to figure out the relationships on their own. The analysis was about the shape of the values and the relationship among them, a goal that is best accomplished through graphs.

  • The stair steps created by the large bars quickly communicated that the options were arranged from smallest to largest.
  • The pie wedges quickly communicated the absolute size of the deficit relative to GNP.
  • The tilt of the slope graphs quickly communicated the rate of change.
  • The vertical position of the slope graphs quickly communicated the percentage relative to GNP.
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  1. October 29, 2011 at 3:02 pm

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