I am a graphic designer who focuses on information design. My day job? I am the data visualisation manager for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. (This blog is my something I do on my own time and does not represent the views of the Fed, blah blah blah legal stuff.) And with my main interest in information design—be it in the shape of clear charts, maps, diagrams, or wayfinding systems—I am fortunate that my day job focuses on data visualisation. Outside of work, I try to stay busy with personal design work. Away from the world of design, I enjoy cooking and reading and am interested in various subjects from history and geography to politics to science to the arts. And I allow all of them to influence my work.
Apologies for the lack of posting the last few months. There are several things going on in my life right now that have prevented me from focusing on Coffee Spoons as much as I would like. I will endeavour to resume posting, but it might not be the daily schedule it had been for at least a little while longer.
Onwards and downwards to the title—one of the dumbest, stupidest, worstest things the Boston Red Sox have done. At least in my lifetime. But also probably in all time. Except Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Also dumb. I’m so upset by this trade I’m using my words good.
The Red Sox had some financial difficulties, or so they claimed. Their payroll was one of the highest in baseball and was over an arbitrary line called the luxury tax, above which teams incur penalties. Repeat offenders pay increased fines, lose draft picks, &c. Boston was a repeat offender and was set to be again with several large contracts on the books.
Instead of sucking it up for a year and fielding a competitive team, the Red Sox dumped a huge chunk of their salary by trading away their star player, maybe baseball’s second best, and their second best pitcher. For a good, not great, outfielder, a fringe-y second baseman, and an even fringier catcher. But mostly they got salary relief. And the 2020 Sox are going to be painful to watch.
Anyway, I made a graphic about this complete suckfest. Because it sucks.
Credit for this awfulness goes to Chaim Bloom, the new president of Red Sox baseball operations. But the graphic is mine.
The British election campaign is wrapping up as it heads towards the general election on Thursday. I haven’t covered it much here, but this piece from the BBC has been at the back of my mind. And not so much for the content, but strictly the design.
In terms of content, the article stems from a question asked in a debate about income levels and where they fall relative to the rest of the population. A man rejected a Labour party proposal for an increase in taxes on those earning more than £80,000 per annum, saying that as someone who earned more than that amount he was “not even in the top 5%, not even the top 50”.
The BBC looked at the data and found that actually the man was certainly within the top 50% and likely in the top 5%, as they earn more than £75,300 per annum. Here in the States, many Americans cannot place their incomes within the actual spreads of income. The income gap here is severe and growing. But, I want to look at the charts the BBC made to illustrate its points.
The most important is this line chart, which shows the income level and how it fits among the percentages of the population.
I am often in favour of minimal axis lines and labelling. Too many labels and explicit data points begin to subtract from the visual representation or comparison of the data. If you need to be able to reference a specific data point for a specific point on the curve, you need a table, not a chart.
However, there is utility in having some guideposts as to what income levels fit into what ranges. And so I am left to wonder, why not add some axis lines. Here I took the original graphic file and drew some grey lines.
Of course, I prefer the dotted or dashed line approach. The difference in line style provides some additional contrast to the plotted series. And in this case, where the series is a thin but coloured line, the interruptions in the solidity of the axis lines makes it easier to distinguish them from the data.
But the article also has another chart, a bar chart, that looks at average weekly incomes across different regions of the United Kingdom. (Not surprisingly, London has the highest average.) Like the line chart, this bar chart does not use any axis labels. But what makes this one even more difficult is that the solid black line that we can use in the line charts above to plot out the maximum for 180,000 is not there. Instead we simply have a string of numbers at the bottom for which we need to guess where they fall.
If we assume that the 700 value is at the centre of the text, we can draw some dotted grey lines atop the existing graphic. And now quite clearly we can get a better sense of which regions fall in which ranges of income.
But we still have this mess of black digits at the bottom of the graphic. And after 50, the numbers begin to run into each other. It is implied that we are looking at increments of 50, but a little more spacing would have helped. Or, we could simply keep the values at the hundreds and, if necessary, not label the lines at the 50s. Like so.
The last bit I would redo in the bar chart is the order of the regions. Unless there is some particular reason for ordering these regions as they are—you could partly argue they are from north to south, but then Scotland would be at the top of the list—they appear an arbitrary lot. I would have sorted them maybe from greatest to least or vice versa. But that bit was outside my ability to do this morning.
So in short, while you don’t want to overcrowd a chart with axis lines and labelling, you still need a few to make it easier for the user to make those visual comparisons.
Credit for the original pieces goes to the BBC graphics department.
American Thanksgiving meals often feature elaborate spreads of side dishes. And everyone has a favourite. A common theme around the holiday is for media outlets to conduct surveys to see which ones are most popular where. In today’s piece we have one such survey from pollster YouGov. In particular, I wanted to focus on a series of small multiples maps they used to illustrate the preferences.
I used to see this approach taken more often and by this I hope I do not see a foreshadow of its comeback. Here we have US states aggregated into distinct regions, e.g. the Northeast. One could get into an argument about how one defines what region. The Midwest is one often contested such region—I have one post on it dating back to at least 2014.
Instead, however, I want to focus on the distinction between states and regions. This small multiples graphic is a set of choropleth maps that use side dish preferences to colour the map. Simple enough. However, the white lines delineating states imply different fields to be coloured within the graphic. Consequently, it appears that each state within the region has the same preference at the same percentage.
The underlying data behind the maps, at least that which was released, indicates the data is not at the state level but instead at the regional level. In other words, there are no differences to be seen between, say, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Consequently, a more appropriate map choice would have been one that omitted the state boundaries in favour of the larger outlines of the regions.
More radically, a set of bar charts would have done a better job. Consider that with the exception of fruit salad, in every map, only one region is different than the others. A bar chart would have shown the nuance separating the three regions that in almost all of these maps is lost when they all appear as one colour.
I appreciate what the designers were attempting to do, but here I would ask for seconds, as in chances.
Credit for the piece goes to the YouGov graphics team.
For my American audience, this week is Thanksgiving. That day when we give thanks for Native Americans giving European settlers their land for small pox ridden blankets. And trinkets. Don’t forget the trinkets. But we largely forget about the history and focus on three things: family, food, and American football. Not necessarily in that order.
But this week I am largely going to want to focus on the food.
Today we can look at a graphic coming from a team of researchers at the University of Illinois who examined the flows of food across the United States, down to the county level. It helped produce this map that shows the linkages between counties.
To be sure, the piece uses some line charts and other maps to showcase the links, but the star is really this map. But aside from its lack of Alaska and Hawaii, I think it suffers from one key design choice: leaving the county borders black.
The black lines, while thin, compete with the faint blue lines that show the numerically small links between counties. Larger trade flows, such as those within California, are clearly depicted with thicker strokes that contrast with the background political boundaries of the counties. But the light blue lines recede into the background beneath the borders.
I wonder if a map of solid, light grey fills and white county borders would have helped showcase the blue lines and thus trade flows a little bit better. After all, the problem is especially noticeable in the eastern half of the United States where we have much geographically smaller counties.
Hat tip to friend and former colleague Michael Schaefer for sharing the article in question.
A few weeks ago we said farewell to John Bercow as Speaker of the House (UK). Whilst I covered the election for the new speaker, I missed the opportunity to post this piece from the BBC. It looked at Bercow’s time in office from a data perspective.
The piece did not look at him per se, but that era for the House of Commons. The graphic below was a look at what constituted debates in the chamber using words in speeches as a proxy. Shockingly, Brexit has consumed the House over the last few years.
I love the graphic, as it uses small multiples and fixes the axes for each row and column. It is clean, clear, and concise—just what a graphic should be.
And the rest of the piece makes smart use of graphical forms. Mostly. Smart line charts with background shading, some bar charts, and the only questionable one is where it uses emoji handclaps to represent instances of people clapping the chamber—not traditionally a thing that happens.
Content wise it also nailed a few important things, chiefly Bercow’s penchant for big words. The piece did not, however, cover his amazing sense of sartorial style vis-a-vis neckties.
Overall a solid piece with which to begin the weekend.
Credit for the piece goes to Ed Lowther & Will Dahlgreen.
In a recent Washington Post piece, I came across a graphic style that I am not sure I can embrace. The article looked at the political trifecta at state levels, i.e. single political party control over the government (executive, lower legislative chamber, and upper legislative chamber). As a side note, I do like how they excluded Nebraska because of its unicameral legislature. It’s also theoretically non-partisan (though everybody knows who belongs to which party, so you could argue it’s as partisan as any other legislature).
At the outset, the piece uses a really nice stacked bar chart. It shows how control over the levers of state government have ebbed and flowed.
It also uses little black lines with almost cartoonish arrowheads to point to particular years. The annotations are themselves important to the context—pointing out the various swing years. But from an aesthetic standpoint, I have to wonder if the casualness of the marks detracts from the seriousness of the content.
Sometimes the whimsical works. Pie charts about pizza pies or pie toppings can be whimsical. A graphic about political control over government is a different subject matter. Bloomberg used to tackle annotations with a subtler and more serious, but still rounded curve type of approach. Notably, however, Bloomberg at that time went for an against the grain, design forward, stoic business serious second approach.
Then we get to a choropleth map. It shows the current state of control for each state.
X marks the spot?However, here the indicator for recent party switches is a set of x’s. These have the same casual approach as the arrows above. But in this case, a careful examination of the x’s indicates they are not unique, like a person drawing a curve with a pen tool. Instead these come from a pre-determined set as the x’s share the exact same shape, stroke lengths and directions.
In years past we probably would have seen the indicator represented by an outline of the state border or a pattern cross-hatching. After all, with the purple being lighter than the blue, the x’s appear more clearly against purple states than blue. I have to admit I did not see New Jersey at first.
Of course, in an ideal world, a box map would probably be clearer still. But the curious part is that the very next map does a great job of focusing the user’s attention on the datapoint that matters: states set for potential changes next November.
Here the states of little interest are greyed out. The designers use colour to display the current status of the potential trifecta states. And so I am left curious why the designers did not choose to take a similar approach with the remaining graphics in the piece.
Overall, I should say the piece is strong. The graphics generally work very well. My quibbles are with the aesthetic stylings, which seem out of place for a straight news article. Something like this could work for an opinion piece or for a different subject matter. But for politics it just struck a loud dissonant chord when I first read the piece.
Credit for the piece goes to Kate Rabinowitz and Ashlyn Still.
Next week is Thanksgiving and for me that means no pub trivia next week. So ahead of a two-week gap, here are our latest (and greatest?) in trivia scores. We won some, we lost some. And we definitely blew some. The key, as always, remains score points before music. Because we do not know music.
Last we looked at the revenge of the flyover states, the idea that smaller cities in swing states are trending Republican and defeating the growing Democratic majority in big cities. This week I want to take a look at something a few weeks back, a piece from CityLab about the elections in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi.
There’s nothing radical in this piece. Instead, it’s some solid uses of line charts and bar charts (though I still don’t generally love them stacked). The big flashy graphic was this, a map of Virginia’s state legislative districts, but mapped not by party but by population density.
It classified districts by how how urban, suburban, or rural (or parts thereof) each district was. Of course the premise of the article is that the suburbs are becoming increasingly Democratic and rural areas increasingly Republican.
But it all goes to show that 2020 is going to be a very polarised year.
As many of my readers know, I have a keen interest in genealogy. And for me that has often met spending hours—far too many hours—wandering around cemeteries attempting to find memorials to ancestors, links to my history, a context to that soil from a different time.
But if you live in Xinjiang or more broadly western China, and you’re not Han Chinese, you probably don’t have that luxury. The Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people native to that part of Asia, have long been oppressed by the Chinese central government. Most recently they have been in the news after scholars and leading figures have “disappeared”, after news of re-education and concentration camps (though thankfully I have read nothing of industrialised death camps).
Instead, now Chinese authorities are destroying mosques (not news), but also now cemeteries, as this article in the Washington Post explains.
The piece just uses some simple before and after photography to visualise its point. Sadly it does it to great effect.
I forget who originally said it, but someone once said that we all die, each of us, two deaths. The first time is when we die and our buried in the ground. The second and final time is when the last person who remembers us forgets us.
And we are now watching thousands of Uighurs in western China die for the second and final time.
Just before Halloween, NBC News published an article by political analyst David Wasserman that examined what airports could portend about the 2020 American presidential election. For those interested in politics and the forthcoming election, the article is well worth the read.
The tldr; Democrats have been great at winning over cosmopolitan types in global metropolitan areas in the big blue states, e.g. New York and California. But the election will be won in the states where the metropolitan areas that sport regional airports dominate, i.e. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. And in those districts, support for Democrats is waning.
The closing line of the piece sums it up nicely:
…to beat Trump, Democrats will need to ask themselves which candidates’ proposals will fly in Erie, Saginaw and Green Bay.
But what about the graphics?
We have a line chart that shows how support for Democrats has been increasing amongst those in the global and international airport metros.
It uses four colours and I don’t necessarily love that. However, it smartly ties into an earlier graphic that did require each series to be visualised in a different colour. And so here the consistency wins out and carries on through the piece. (Though as a minor quibble I would have outlined the MSA being labelled instead of placing a dot atop the MSA.)
The kicker, however is one of those maps with trend arrows. It shows the increasing Republican support by an arrow anchored over the metropolitan area.
The problem here is many-fold. First, the map is actually quite small in the overall piece. Whereas the earlier maps sit centred, but outside the main text block, this fits neatly within the narrow column of text (on a laptop display at least). That means that these labels are all crowded and actually make it more difficult to realise which arrow is which city. For example, which line is Canton, Ohio? Additionally with the labels, because they are set in black text and a relatively bolder face, they standout more than the red lines they seek to label. Consequently, the users’ focus falls not on the lines, but actually on the labels—the reverse of what a good graphic should do.
Second, length vs. angle. If all lines moved away from their anchor at the same angle, we could simply measure length and compare the trending support that way. However, it is clear from Duluth and Green Bay that the angles are different in addition to their sizes. So how does one interpret both variables together?
Third, I wonder if the map would not have been made more useful with some outlines or shading. I may know what the forthcoming battleground states are. And I might know where they are on a map. But Americans are notorious for being, well, not great when it comes to geography. A simple black outline of the states could have been useful, though it in this design would have conflicted with the heavy black labelling of the arrows. Or maybe a purple shading could have been used to show those states.
Overall, the piece is well worth a read and the graphics generally help tell the narrative visually. But that final graphic could have used a revision or two.
Credit for the piece goes to Jiachuan Wu and Jeremia Kimelman.