Teach Once, Use Often

“Can’t we sprinkle in some pie charts just to change things up?”

If you’re in the information design business, you’ve probably heard some version on this request. Variety is the spice of life, right?

I say: Get your spice elsewhere. Your audience doesn’t have interest in learning a bunch of different charts — and carrying an unnecessary cognitive load. Instead, teach once, use often.

Here’s a great example from a Pudding data story that explores “How many high school stars make it in the NBA?”. The following visualization is a little complex, non-standard, and will take readers a moment to grasp. Each dot represents a top 100 high school player and the progress they made on their way to stardom in the NBA.

Why ask your readers to learn this new Plinko-style visualization?

Because once they understand it, the data story goes on to use the same structure many times. Different segments of players (e.g. top 10 high school players, straight-to-NBA, players from specific colleges) are shown in this same model, each time exposing a new facet of insight into the data. By the second or third iteration, I’d expect most readers understand the visual vocabulary and are focused on what they can learn from the data. And that’s the point of data visualization — not to create a spicy grab-bag of charts.