Charts instead of tables please

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. []
  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. []
  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. []
  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? []

The visuals that should have been there

While reading all these interesting books I keep encountering the same problems over and over. Many of these academic writers just concentrate on producing text and don’t pay enough attention to the visuality of their articles. They either do not employ visual means at all, or they use them poorly.

From now on, whenever I have the energy, I’ll try to to show you their mistakes and show you how it should have been done. So here you have the first part of my new “series” The Visuals That Should Have Been There.

Rosch 1978: Principles of Categorization

Before saying anything negative I must say that I really like Eleanor Rosch’s theory on prototypes. The notion of categorisation is central to my thesis. After all, genres can be seen as one level of the categorisation process.

But I seriously dislike the way Rosch explains the two different dimensions of category systems in her 1978 article Principles of Categorization.1 There are two problems there, which both are really typical to academic writing.

First of all, she employs the visual metaphor of the vertical and horizontal dimensions, just with words! Come on, if you are making a visual point, why not show it? It’s one of the classic rules of teaching and presenting: show, don’t just tell. But at least the metaphor is not that complicated:

For purposes of explication, we may conceive of category systems as having both a verbal and horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension concerns the level of inclusiveness of the category – the dimension along which the terms collie, dog, mammal, animal, and living thing vary. The horizontal dimension concerns the segmentation of categories at the same level of inclusiveness – the dimension on which dog, cat, car, bus, chair, and sofa vary. (p. 30)

So it’s sounds quite simple, doesn’t it. First you imagine a vertical stack of words:

living thing

And then you visualise similar stacks of words alongside that one, based on the words cat, car, bus etc. Right?

And after you have spent your time visualising the metaphor instead of just seeing it with a quick glance you move on and turn the page. And there is a table which seems to illustrate the point. But it is actually not directly connected to her text, but refers to related research on basic objects.

And now we get to our second problem: The table tells us the opposite of what she just explained in the text.

Whaaat? Why is the vertical dimension in her metaphor shown horizontally? And vice versa. Yes, it is connected to another study but why does it have to reverse the dimensions? Even if it is taken directly from another study, why not change it to suit the article? The table wouldn’t suffer from that. Another option would be to change the dimensions mentioned earlier to fit this table. Now the combination just doesn’t make sense.

I can think of a couple of explanations. Perhaps the table is just wrong. Maybe it wasn’t done by Rosch herself. Or perhaps in the text she is merely using abstract dimensions. It doesn’t really matter which is the vertical and which is the horizontal. Therefore, perhaps she means “dimension 1” and “dimension 2” without referring to the physical or visual world. And it’s just unfortunate that she employs the terms vertical and horizontal.

In any case, the end result is that you start doubting your own memory and/or comprehension. You have to go back to the previous spread, read the passage again, and compare that information with the table. At some point, you’ll realise that for the metaphor to work it doesn’t matter which dimension is which. But you have to be sure you understand the dimensions in the same way as Rosch, as she refers to the “vertical dimension” and  the “horizontal dimension” later in the text.

Now, it could be that I got this thing all wrong. Perhaps I’m not smart enough to understand a simple metaphor of two dimensions. But I seriously think something like this should be alongside the verbal metaphor:

This should be in the article by Rosch 1978

Then you could omit the unfortunate table and refer to that basic object research by other means. The whole issue would be so much easier and clearer. And the reader wouldn’t have to waste his or her time on trying to visualise the metaphor. And even worse, trying to solve the contradiction between the text and the table.

It just makes me think how much time and brain power is wasted on obscure academic writing in general. Imagine the confusion of one reader like me, and then multiply that with thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands students and academics over the years. That’s a lot of wasted working hours.

Any lessons for writers (and editors)? When the issues themselves are complex, why not try to maximise the clarity and presentation of them. Pay attention to this kind of small details, even if they might feel trivial to you. Your beautiful scientific ideas will suffer if the readers get stuck on pesky elements like this.

  1. Rosch, E. (1978) Principles of Categorization. In Cognition and Categorization (Eds. Rosch, E. & Lloyd, B.B.), Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, pp. 27–48. []