Charts instead of tables please

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When you are trying to get a point across using numbers, show us the point, don’t make us calculate and compare! Again it’s time to talk about the Visuals That Should Have Been There.

Yet another great reading experience which suffers from flaws in the way information is presented visually. Brian McNair’s book News and Journalism in the UK has provided me a sober and easy starting point to the inner life of British journalism.

I especially enjoyed the way McNair introduces the various sociological schools of journalism research. I think that chapter would benefit not only journalism students but also generally all students of design or communication etc. who are trying to wrap their heads around concepts like Marxist media criticism, social construction of reality, the dumbing-down of culture and so on.

My only problem lies in the tables the book contains. The 4th edition (Routledge, 2003) that I got from my library has 8 tables and I think all of them could have been made into bar charts. Or at least turn the most important numbers in them to charts. And from what I can see from the Amazon preview, the problem remains in the 5th edition.

Some of the information is so simple, that the tables are pretty sufficient. Like the one on newspaper ownership (image below). It’s ordered mostly from the biggest to the smallest and the numbers are relatively small and easy to grasp. Nevertheless, adding a chart would make it even better.

But where I really noticed the problem was where McNair makes a point through comparing numbers in a table. It’s not a major point in the book, and if you’re feeling bored you can just skip the table take McNair’s word for it. He talks about how John Birt affected BBC’s news production and popularity in the nineties:

In terms of ratings ‘Birtian’ journalism certainly appeared to make a positive impact on the British viewing public. By late 1989, for example, the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News was on occasion recording audiences of 12 million, as compared to 6 million for ITN’s News at Ten, a pattern of dominance that was repeated across the news schedule, though not usually in such stark form (see Table 5.1.). (page 107)

So, check out the table yourself (below). See how easy it is to see how the “pattern of dominance is repeated across the schedule”.

Did you get it immediately? I didn’t. Yes, of course I did get it in time. But it’s such an easy point, that when I finally did, I felt kind of cheated or bothered. “Why did I have to spend so much time and effort on such an elementary point?!” How much time did you spend on it?

Perhaps you glanced it quickly hoping to return to the text. But when it didn’t make sense immediately, you had to devote a few more glances to it. And perhaps you also had to do a kind of mental switch from understanding text, contexts and the society, to understanding abstract numbers.

There are several ways you can turn that table into a chart. The solution depends on what one wishes to emphasise, space & color constraints etc. I thought that the point was to show that the BBC’s programmes were dominating in all the different time slots, such as main news, early evening news, midday news and so on. Below you can see one solution I might propose. This version omits the precise numbers but who needs them anyway? What the reader needs here is the point that BBC’s news programmes are doing better than ITN’s, and he or she can still approximate the numbers from the bars if necessary.1

This should be in McNair 2003, page 107

Okay, in this particular case “much time and effort wasted” is relative and actually not that much. It’s not like you’re trying to understand Wittgenstein or the national budget. We are talking about few glances, a handful of seconds.

Never mind the actual time it took in seconds. What I’m talking about is that feeling you get. That even if it was not really a big effort, you are annoyed that you had to do a little more than you felt was justified or necessary.

And that’s the key point in all design. Think about badly designed handles, mugs, chairs, doors, windows. Whatever. It might be an insignificant door knob or other invaluable mundane object. But you are reminded of its clumsiness each time you touch it. It might slightly irritate you each time. Perhaps several times every day.2

And that clumsiness and irritation drags your thoughts from whatever important thing you had in your mind – your job, your children, your ongoing relationship crisis, your happiness – demanding your attention to the silly mundane object.

Design is about minimising the effort of the user. Making the user feel comfortable. That’s what some fields of design call usability, ergonomics, etc. And here we can call it information design.3

In a book the designer is bound to a two-dimensional surface. But he or she still has a vast amount of resources which can be used to maximise the usability of the page and thus minimising the effort and irritation of the reader.4

  1. I would also like to change the headline, but here I’ve kept the original one for consistency. I mean, who’s interested in “figures”?! The variable is the “audience” or “viewers”. The figures themselves are just abstract entities used to express their quantity. [⇧ back]
  2. This is why the difference between pc:s and Macs & iPads is so significant. If I have to use a computer constantly it should be as painless as possible, and not raise my blood pressure every 30 minutes. [⇧ back]
  3. Some might call it graphic design, but I’m not using it because all too often that seems to lead to worsening the usability because it tries to be expressive or artistic. Information design always aims to maximise the usability and clarity. [⇧ back]
  4. And don’t try saying that “maybe they didn’t have a designer”. It’s a book you’re holding. How do you think it materialised. Out of thin air? [⇧ back]

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