Avoid chart porn at all costs: Mint Blog has great data but needs to stop hiding it with anti-minimalism

Hey Mint guys, you're doing great work. You've got great data. I love your product. Your blog is cool.

You've got to fix your infographics. It's just... really... not... OK. I spent years designing data visualization for a quant data analysis platform (Palantir Finance) so somewhere along the way, bad data viz became a huge if very geeky pet peeve.

Look at that example above. What is going on? Some things are big and some things are small. There's no legend. There's no common axes. This is chart junk... or maybe worse (better?) -- chart porn. It simulates the act of looking at statistics without actually giving the user any real insight.

Growth rate? Growth of what? Rate over what amount time? Heck, you don't even get the numbers. There's no time, date, footnote, asterisk. All the viewer ends up with is a question mark. It's happening over and over again, like this one I blogged about a few months ago.

This is not useful. You know what's a better visualization than a bunch of random images that are slightly bigger or smaller than each other with no labels? Ordered lists. That's the amount of information you're communicating if you don't give numbers and context.

Brilliant design thinker / statistician Edward Tufte would *hate* these infographics. In fact he would probably set it on fire. Tufte says: Minimize non-data ink. That is to say, don't waste your time on parts of a chart that don't convey additional message.

Data Ink Ratio = (data-ink)/(total ink in the plot)

This is minimalism at work in infographics. Data stands on its own. It does not need fancy images and gussied up fancy texture backgrounds.

Here's a case study from Tufte's work that I find fascinating. Chart junk of the worst order (not even qualifying for porn -- it's not pretty):

Yet when you apply a high data-ink ratio and a whole lot of ingenuity (designers thrive on constraints), what you can get can be dramatically better:

Look at that! Cut the crap and let the data speak for itself -- and the mundane / unintelligible suddenly takes on meaning and life.

The problem with chart porn is that it gets in the way of the message you're communicating. I'm a big believer in minimalism, and these charts are anti-minimalist. They are filled with lines and fury signifying nothing. (rather like life, some would say)

Oh, Mint. Please use your data for good, not for more chart porn.

Epic win: Infographics expose Republican chartjunk obfuscation

Before (Released by Rep. Boehner)
(Partisan attempt to make proposed health system look absurdly complicated)

After (Released by irate graphic designer/citizen)

via robertpalmer's flickr and infosthetics.com

Notable mainly because the role of good/bad graphic design can play in people, society, and understanding policy that affects decisionmaking. Not only can bad visual design cause space shuttles to explode -- it can mislead, misdirect, and just plain lie.

There are now four kinds of lies: Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics, and Intentionally obfuscated infographics.

Dear Rep. Boehner,

Recently, you released a chart purportedly describing the organization of the House Democrats' health plan. I think Democrats, Republicans, and independents agree that the problem is very complicated, no matter how you visualize it.

By releasing your chart, instead of meaningfully educating the public, you willfully obfuscated an already complicated proposal. There is no simple proposal to solve this problem. You instead chose to shout "12! 16! 37! 9! 24!" while we were trying to count something.

So, to try and do my duty both to the country and to information design (a profession and skill you have loudly shat upon), I have taken it upon myself to untangle your delightful chart. A few notes:

- I have removed the label referring to "federal website guidelines" as those are not a specific requirement of the Health and Human Services department. They are part of the U.S. Code. I should know: I have to follow them.

- I have relabeled the "Veterans Administration" to the "Department of Veterans' Affairs." The name change took effect in 1989.

- In the one change I made specifically for clarity, I omitted the line connecting the IRS and Health and Human Services department labeled "Individual Tax Return Information."

In the future, please remember that you have a duty to inform the public, and not willfully confuse your constituents.


Robert Palmer
California 53rd District