2007/02/false_advertising_1.html

False Advertising

adbuyers.gifAlmost every weekend the New York Times Magazine accompanies their first main story with a relevant infographic. They tend to be commissioned from outside agencies, and sometimes lack the good design one sees in most NYT graphs. I’ve written about bad examples before, on subjects like world conflicts and the threat posed by Iran. One of the worst ones I’ve seen in a while appeared in the Sunday Magazine of February 11th.

What’s so bad about it? Well, there are some pedestrian faults, the sort of things we find in a lot of graphs. The lines are labeled indirectly, with a key, so one has to jump back and forth to interpret them. It’s possible the designer felt there wasn’t room to label the lines directly, yet there’s a lot of wasted horizontal space between each year—he or she could have easily fitted them in. (And what are those lines anyway? What’s the difference between “Automotive Factory and Dealer Associations” and plain old “Auto Dealerships”? Surely one of the designer’s jobs is to communicate, not just recite corporate spin that calls fast-food vendors “Quick-Service Restaurants”.) The colors are pretty, but don’t signify anything, serving only to distinguish the lines. And it’s strange that every point has its value labeled; why not just use a y-axis scale? After all, with a general newspaper readership surely it’s the trends and relative magnitudes that matter here, not the exact values.

adbuyers_notes.gifA good thing the designer did label the points, though, or we wouldn’t be able to see how misleading the graphic is. Absolute height doesn’t correspond to value, for example (see A). I’m guessing he or she did this to stop lines 2 and 3 from crossing—they did cross in inconvenient old reality, but that messes up the pretty pattern. Note that line 1 should be about three times the height of line 2, but I suppose that would create an ugly gap.

Change in height doesn’t match change in value either. The two lines in B correspond to the two changes in line 5. Since both are 0.3 billion dollars, the lines should be the same height, and they obviously aren’t. Look at the magnitude of change in line 1 as well. It looks like every line is using a different scale, and the designer just made the ends all join up so it looked nice, like a subway map.

And what the heck’s going on with C? 1.2 should equal 1.2! Perhaps it’s 1.25, and the digit was left off so it would match the others, and incidentally make the graph absurd. Doesn’t anyone at the Times proofread these things?

my_adbuyers.gifTo redo this, I first generated a basic chart in Excel. I pasted this into a background layer in Illustrator, locked it, and just traced over all the components in a new layer (the chart is so simple it’s hardly worth ungrouping and deleting all the junk that Excel puts in its graphs). I came up with category names that were a bit more meaningful, and created a y-axis, which really only needs to be anchored by a few values.

One thing very obvious now is the dominance of auto advertising. I’m sure I’ve oversimplified the two auto categories; I’d want to see to what extent they overlap or could be lumped. Another thing to note is how wildly the original graph overemphasized changes; increases and decreases now look much more modest (although I wish we had ten or twenty more years of data; it would easily fit in the same space.) The color-coding is still meaningless; perhaps rising and declining categories could be colored differently, or color could encode information, like predominantly-print vs. TV advertising. The main thing, though, is that the graph’s no longer telling lies. (And we got to keep the groovy rounded orange lines.)