Godin Dumps on Bar Charts; Data Visualization Record Falls to 1 and 1

Seth Godin, well-known marketing guru, took a strong and misguided stand against bar charts1 in a recent blog post entitled “The three laws of great graphs”

Godin suggests that bar charts (and presumably other chart types like scatterplots, bubble charts, bullet charts, treemaps, etc.) give too much latitude for data confusion and ambiguity when used in presentations. In Godin’s view, a chart should make a single, clear point and leave no room for alternative conclusions.

“The only reason (did I mention only) to use a chart in a presentation is to make a point. If you want to prove some deep insight or give people textured data to draw their own conclusions, DON’T put it in a presentation.” “If the facts demand nuance, don’t use a graph, because you won’t get nuance, you’ll get confusion.”

Godin had hit on a similar point a while back when he critiqued Edward Tufte’s favorite infographic Napoleon’s March to Moscow.

“I think [Tufte] is completely out of his gourd and totally wrong. I think this is one of the worst graphs ever made…To make me take 15 minutes to study it doesn’t make sense.”

I agree that complex infographics aren’t an effective communication mechanism for many audiences, particularly if you are interested in telling a focused story.

Unfortunately, he uses this reasonable foundation as a jumping off point to claim that bar charts are overrated and unnecessary (he throws in a heinous 3D column chart for emphasis). “The problem with bar charts,” he says “is that they should either be line/area charts (when graphing a change over time, like unemployment rates) or they should be a simple pie chart”

That popping sound you hear is Stephen Few’s head bursting.

It is reasonable to argue that a value changing over time is often better suited to a line or area chart. But pie better than bar. Sorry, no can buy. He obviously got some flak after this first post:

“I stepped on the toes of many data presentation purists2 yesterday, so let me reiterate my point to make it crystal clear: In a presentation to non-scientists (or to bored scientists), the purpose of a chart or graph is to make one point, vividly. Tell a story and move on. If you can’t be both vivid and truthful, it doesn’t belong in your presentation.”

His follow-up post Bar graphs vs. Pie charts attempts to solidify his argument but ends up stepping in more goo. To make his point, he shows a effective pie chart versus an ineffective bar chart.

Godin Pie Chart
Godin Bar Chart

In a not so subtle sleight of hand, he has added another data series to the bar chart to show how it doesn’t make a single, clear point. As my colleague Pete likes to say, if my aunt had…

His argument appears to boil down to a belief that pie charts are so simple that it is impossible to deviate from his one-point-per-chart rule. Or put another way: presenters can’t be trusted to follow this rule, so best to take away anything dangerous. This parallels the misplaced anger people have toward PowerPoint. I wrote a post called A Poor Craftsman Blames His Tools.

That question aside, I reject his rejection of bar charts for a number of reasons:

  • There is a lot of evidence that bar charts aresuperior to pie charts even when showing simple data. Bar charts allow for better labeling and show relative size more effectively.
  • Pie charts are the most frequently mis-used charts in my experience. There seems to be an irresistible need to craft animated, 3D, shiny pies — all of which adds zero communication value.
  • Restricting data presentation to a few chart types limits your ability to communicate. Scatterplots, for example, can carry powerful and clear messages about relationships between variables.
  • If the data and message is super simple (as Godin would want), using a chart is likely a waste of pixels. In his pie chart above, the only message he wants to convey is that trolls rule. Why not simply state: “Trolls are the largest segment with 45% share” and leave out the chart.
  • Bar charts can show trends and magnitudes simultaneously. I don’t believe this has to be a liability in communication, nor should they always be separated. If I wanted to show that trolls are both the biggest segment and the fastest growing, breaking those facts into separate slides seems more distracting than useful. The points are tightly linked and supportive of each other.

1. The “bar” chart that Godin refers to is actually a column chart. I’ll use the term bar charts to refer to both bar and column charts in this post. However, the distinction between these two chart types is important as each chart is appropriate in different circumstances. For example, when there are a lot of categories, a (true) bar chart allows for much clearer labeling.

2. “Purists” seems to be used to label the objectors as a bunch of academics who don’t appreciate the realities of the business world. If you’re a loyal reader of our blog, you know that is a stick we prefer to use on others.