3 More Chart Mistakes

3 More Chart Mistakes

Blame it on Excel, or perhaps a lack of time. Blame it on the template, or maybe a certain couldn’t-be-bothered attitude, there are a lot of chart mistakes out there, that creep into presentations and decks.

I’ve already documented the Timelord, (for those of you that live in alternate timestreams) the Harlequin (for the motley fools obsessed with color) and the Lazy Susan (for the people that like to make people take the long way round). Here are 3 more stupid charting mistakes. Check your decks to see if you are making any of these.


The Pointless Chart

The Pointless Chart

There was a template that insisted absolutely insisted that you put in a chart here. Fortunately, you had the numbers, unfortunately there was no conclusion to be drawn from them, beyond ______ has remained unchanged. Perhaps that is worthy of a chart but probably not. In a visual hierarchy, a chart ranks higher than a word, and putting a chart on the slide implies that you think this is important. But if there is no point, should it even be there?


The Martha Stewart Chart

The Martha-Stewart-Chart

Dare we say overly decorated? a tad gaudy? The chart equivalent of garish reflections, drop-shadows and 3-D effects. Filled with what Edward Tufte, mighty spirit of chartmakers everywhere would call chartjunk, “the interior decoration of graphics generates a lot of ink that does not tell the viewer anything new. The purpose of decoration varies — to make the graphic appear more scientific and precise, to enliven the display, to give the designer an opportunity to exercise artistic skills. Regardless of its cause, it is all non-data-ink or redundant data-ink, and it is often chartjunk.”


The Australian* or Sdrawkcab Chart

The Australian or Swardback

Backwards charts confuse. The western world reads from left to right, and things progress from left to right. Negative to positive. So an HR chart with the high performers on the left, and the poor performers on the right isn’t right, it’s wrong. I’ve seen survey results with glowing comments in the text sections, and a score equivalent to hated it in the metrics. Why – because the scale from like (1) to don’t like (10) – is backwards.  Think about what you’re putting on the horizontal axis. If there is any kind of sequence, worst to best, negative to positive, yesterday to tomorrow, make sure it’s not sdrawkcab.


Have you made these mistakes?

You may have made some of these mistakes. There are some great experts out there that can help. If you want to improve how you handle data, polish your plotting or brush up your bar charts, I recommend you start here.

*No insult intended, my sister is Australian. But they do have it backwards. When it’s Christmas, they’re barbecuing on the beach. When I get up, they’re going to sleep, the water even swirls down the plughole the wrong way.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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  1. Naomi B. Robbins | January 9, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    I agree with everything you said about the Martha Stewart chart. As bad as the chart junk is, I don’t consider it the worst feature of this figure. That title, in my opinion, either goes to the equally spaced tick marks that do not represent equal quantities or to the break in the scale when using bars. The reader compares lengths when reading a bar chart. The lengths are meaningless when a chunk is missing. Another problem is that the break will easily be missed by many readers since it is just a bit of white on the axis.

    • Gavin | January 10, 2014 at 10:23 am

      Thanks Naomi, I tried to make it as awful as it could be.

      A special mention goes to charts that misrepresent. I just haven’t thought of a good name for them yet. Any other ideas for types of chart mistakes you see regularly? I know you’re not a fan of pies…

      • Naomi B. Robbins | January 10, 2014 at 1:50 pm

        Charts that misrepresent are usually called misleading or deceptive charts or graphs. I distinguish between these by intent. I call a graph misleading if it was caused by poor software defaults, lack of knowledge of the graph designer, or other unintentional causes. I call a graph deceptive if the graph designer chooses to deceive, perhaps to make results look better than they actually are.

        I often post chart mistakes on my blog. See http://onforb.es/1hvp8cr for a case where a single graph is acceptable but a group of graphs is not.

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