How to confuse and distract your audience with poor visualizations

Excuse me?

We often talk about how to best visualize data so that the audience can quickly discover the most important information in often complex data sets. But we cannot forget that it is also possible to achieve exactly the opposite effect: You can also leverage visualizations to distract and confuse people. As a matter of fact, it is possible to create visuals that completely hide important messages. Why would you do that? I guess if you want to hide bad news….right?

A bad example

The other day I received the 2011 spending report of the town that I live in. The text was quite dense and it included a ton of public sector terms that I did not understand. The core of the report, however, was centered around a graphic that outlines the detailed spending. Without further due, here it is.

Poor visualization

What’s wrong with this chart? Boy….pretty much everything: Extreme 3D, poor font choice (I can’t read it…), technical language and the colors… The sum of the parts is also not correct (as compared to the narrative). Percentages are not correct either (poor rounding practices). To be honest with you – when I saw this report I immediately got the impression that our town hall is trying to hide something. After some analysis I am still confused and not quite sure what to think about this.

To be fair, I believe that our mayor and his team are highly qualified. His approval ratings are extremely high for good reason. But this sort of communication does leave a bad taste in my mouth. It just makes you wonder….

A better approach

3D pie charts are never a good choice. The data above is quite simple and one could either leverage a standard sorted bar graph, a stacked bar chart or a waterfall graph. Really depends on your own personal preference. Here is an example:

Stacked Bar Chart