Taking your audience through your graphics

A few weeks back, I got involved in a Twitter flamewar with Shamika Ravi, a member of the Indian Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. The object of the argument was a set of gifs she had released to show different aspects of the Indian economy. Admittedly I started the flamewar. Guilty as charged.

Thinking about it now, this wasn’t the first time I was complaining about her gifs – I began my now popular (at least on Twitter) Bad Visualisations tumblr with one of her gifs.

So why am I so opposed to animated charts like the one in the link above? It is because they demand too much of the consumer’s attention and it is hard to get information out of them. If there is something interesting you notice, by the time you have had time to digest the information the graphic has moved several frames forward.

Animated charts became a thing about a decade ago following the late Hans Rosling’s legendary TED Talk. In this lecture, Rosling used “motion charts” (a concept he possibly invented) – which was basically a set of bubbles moving around a chart, as he sought to explain how the condition of the world has improved significantly over the years.

It is a brilliant talk. It is a very interesting set of statistics simply presented, as Rosling takes the viewers through them. And the last phrase is the most important – these motion charts work for Rosling because he talks to the audience as the charts play out. He pauses when there is some explanation to be made or the charts are at a key moment. He explains some counterintuitive data points exhibited by the chart.

And this is precisely how animated visualisations need to be done, and where they work – as part of a live presentation where a speaker is talking along with the charts and using them as visual aids. Take Rosling (or any other skilled speaker) away from the motion charts, though, and you will see them fall flat – without knowing what the key moments in the chart are, and without the right kind of annotations, the readers are lost and don’t know what to look for.

There are a large number of aids to speaking that can occasionally double up as aids to writing. Graphics and charts are one example. Powerpoint (or Keynote or Slides) presentations are another. And the important thing with these visual aids is that the way they work as an aid is very different from the way they work standalone. And the makers need to appreciate the difference.

In business school, we were taught to follow the 5 by 5 formula (or some such thing) while making slides – that a slide should have no more than five bullet points, and each point should have no more than five words. This worked great in school as most presentations we made accompanied our talks.

Once I started working (for a management consultancy), though, I realised this didn’t work there because we used powerpoint presentations as standalone written communications. Consequently, the amount of information on each slide had to be much greater, else the reader would fail to get any information out of it.

Conversely, a powerpoint presentation meant as a standalone document would fail spectacularly when used to accompany a talk, for there would be too much information on each slide, and massive redundancy between what is on the slide and what the speaker is saying.

The same classification applies to graphics as well. Interactive and animated graphics do brilliantly as part of speeches, since the speaker can control what the audience is seeing and make sure the right message gets across. As part of “print” (graphics shared standalone, like on Twitter), though, these graphics fail as readers fail to get information out of them.

Similarly, a dense well-annotated graphic that might do well in print can fail when used as a visual aid, since there will be too much information and audience will not be able to focus on either the speaker or the graphic.

It is all about the context.