Step away from the infographic: Why (and when) it’s okay not to graph

I don’t mean to give you mixed messages here, but I have been known to be anti-graph from time to time.

You see, at some point you’ll probably be hit by the perfect storm of fascination with data visualization and excitement in your budding graphing prowess, and go all-in on graphing. It’s the data equivalent of “when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

“Is that a number? I’m gonna graph it!

That’s pretty normal. It certainly happened to me. But still, hold your eager horses.

Just because you can graph something doesn’t necessarily mean you should graph something.

Are infographics always needed? Just because you can doesn't mean you should...

Hey, this looks like something that could go on Pinterest…

For example, there are 36.3 million people currently living in Canada. Say I don’t want to divide that into provinces and I don’t want to compare it to other places and I don’t care about historical trends – I simply want to convey the number of people in Canada right now.

The mind reels.

Bar and line graphs would be silly because there’s no trend or comparison to show.



A pie chart would be a giant circle – doable, but not super impactful.


Says here 100% of Canadian residents reside in Canada.

What about using symbols to show how many that is? You could use a little person icon to represent a million people and throw a grid of 36 on there.


Little green men.

Sure that’s an option, but does it serve the audience? Do 36 little icons really help your reader understand that 36 million is a big number? Depending where the illustration appears, your icon army could simply become more visual clutter on the page.


But 36 million is a number!

How about writing it really big? After all, it works for sidebars and pull quotes. Numbers should have their day in the sun too.

I like to choose a big font, a bold color, and just go for it.



The “big ol’ number” approach.


Simple, yet effective.

“But isn’t that, you know, boring?

Yeah, it can be. You can jazz things up a bit by adding some minor embellishments. Perhaps an image of Canada? Or a Canadian symbol?



Oh. Canada.



Why yes, the logical choice would have been red.

Just make sure you don’t overdo things. The focus should still be on the number, not that sweet clipart you found.


When not to graph

Don’t get me wrong – graphs are awesome (see also: this site) and can be very effective in communicating information to your audience. Graphs really shine when you’re trying to show:

  • Comparisons
  • Changes over time
  • Portions of a whole

More qualitative data visualizations are great for stuff like:

  • Locations
  • Connections
  • Ideas

But plain old quantity? It isn’t in either of those lists.

If you just want to show a number, sometimes the most effective option is to… just show a number.


Anticlimactic, no?


In short

Put the hammer down every now and then.

Ask yourself whether your data visualization (or big bold number) is the most effective way to communicate your message. Are you serving your audience?


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