Data looks better naked

Edward Tufte introduced the concept of data-ink in his 1983 classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. In it he states “Data-ink is the non-erasable core of the graphic, the non-redundant ink arranged in response to variation in the numbers represented” (emphasis mine). Tufte asserts that in displaying data we should remove all non-data-ink and redundant data-ink, within reason, to increase the data-ink-ratio and create a sound graphical design.

Stephen Few convincingly argues that some redundancy is often more effective and we agree, however, most graphics don’t struggle with understatement. In fact, most contain a stunning amount of excess ink (or pixels). Rather than dressing our data up we should be stripping it down.

To illustrate how less ink is more effective, attractive and impactive we put together this animated gif. In it we start with a chart, similar to what we’ve seen in many presentations, and vastly improve it with progressive deletions and no additions.

And here is the slide deck if you want to go at your own pace.

The next time you are trying to improve a chart, consider what you can take away rather than what you can add.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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7 Responses to Data looks better naked

  1. Mark says:

    Very nice animation, I agree that minimalism often looks better in design. In some cases however too much minimalism is counter-productive, I think you reached perfection at lighten lines.

    • Bob says:

      I think tt depends on what you are trying to convey: the lines make it easier to evaluate which bar of close-by-bars is higher, but this information is also in the number. So if you are just interested in the relative energy content, then maybe get rid of the numbers and keep the lines. If the numbers are important, print them and get rid of the lines.

  2. Homer J. Simpson says:

    I’ve read most of Edward Tufte’s books and enjoyed your presentation. But why was the bar for bacon – mmm, bacon – left red whereas the bars for the other foods changed to gray? Also, while I may not be very bright, as data is the plural form of datum, shouldn’t the title be corrected to Data look better naked?
    Thank you, and I think I’ll go snack on bacon,

    • Joey says:

      The bar for bacon was left red to emphasize the data (datum) for bacon. Its not clear in my explanation why I would like to emphasize bacon, but does one ever really need a reason to?

  3. David Hoskins says:

    Great animation – love it!

  4. CM says:

    Brian Suda’s also covered this in his talk at DIBI Conf 2011 – Visualising Data