Tag Archives: information design

Where Does The Money Go?

Saturday’s Guardian has an interesting two page graphic (that doesn’t seem to be online) showing where the government spends its money. I spent ages exploring it… and after a while it started raising a whole heap of questions …

Is a billion a British billion or an American billion? Whenever I’m faced with a billion I get a nagging doubt that I really know how much money is really being talked about. Can anyone put me right on this, I’m assuming we mean a thousand million?

Why don’t the blobs add up to the full amount? Showing sub-blobs AS WELL as the aggregate blobs can visually seem to artificially increase the area displayed (I think, but I’m not sure). Maybe the sub-blobs should be seen as holes in the parent blob.

Does anybody know the “real” figures and are they even diagrammable? I spotted a footnote that says that lots of departments receive income and so the blobs are scewed slightly. I started to feel less confident about the “reality” of the diagram. True to form, some of the blobs have spelling errors (we spend £7.6 nillion on the Navy apparently… I’m assuming a nillion is nearly a million).

I’d like to throw the spending on Wales and Scotland into one blob collection, which leads to the question of where the interactive version (like this one) of this is? I really want to throw the diagram’s blobs around, maybe comparing defence with everything else. Comparing what has been spent on the Iraq war (£1.4bn) to what was spent on our railways (£1.0bn) is a thought that will stick in my mind.

After “reading” this beautiful and slightly flawed image for a while I got the feeling that not only do I not have the ability to easily assimilate this sort of information, I also get the feeling that maybe nobody does. I also want to have a bash at making it easier to understand. It would be good if these were “live” figures, verifiable and believable and somehow become part of the political process. I’d love an interview where the chart was centre stage rather than MPs interpretation of statics which always leads inevitably to nonsense.

So come on Guardian, as well as publishing the image (I’d quite like to buy a poster too by the way) why not also publish the graphic file (so I can move things around) AND the spreadsheet that holds the data (and maybe more). Mashups don’t grow on trees you know.

Comics, Bigfoot and Coffee Cups in Business Meetings

You probably saw that Google published an introduction to their new browser called Chrome as a comic. How fab! It quite often baffles me that, when we set out to communicate something (well) that we cling so desperately to text. I mean, what has text ever done for us? Well, apart from the written word…  etc. I also just stumbled over some comics about science that encourage us to Learn graphically from MAKE Blog. Great stuff!

I think it’s easy to underestimate the seriousness issues lurking in using comics to communicate information.

Most information-oriented web sites (yes I means your web site) out there could be improved with just a little time spent thinking about how their existing information might be better displayed visually.

The reasons for doing this are threefold…

1. Because everybody is different (allegedly), some people will actually appreciate and understand what you are trying to say better. Imagine that text, for at least 10% of your users, is their second language. Perhaps there should be a move to give sites an positive accessibility rating only if they’ve attempted to visually represent their information.

2. The simple act of re-framing your information in a different format, which may be a sequential cartoon, or a mind-map diagram, or a flow chart will mean you understand what you are saying better. It’s hard to hide behind a pie-chart if you have nothing worth saying (note the lack of pie chart in this blog post).

3. Your web site or information will look nicer. Don’t laugh. It’s actually very important but in ways that are quite hard to explain. Lots of people spend lots of money designing sites and information where the site design (or wrapper) is the best-designed part of the page and the information, or the important bit, has been entered using a woefully inadequate web form… as text. It’s like buying a ridiculously expensive golden frame and hiring an artist who has to paint a picture with a dirty broken stick. And by “looking nicer”, I don’t really mean from a glitsy point of view, I mean that which ever way you look at text, a big lump of text is always a bad thing, this sentence is already too long and is showing no signs of ever finishing, if you see what I mean.

Using images (that mean something) gives you an opportunity to visually punctuate big lumps of text, to provide people with a recognition-factor when they return to a page (oh here I am) and simply to add a bit of variety to your information. And these are just the side-benefits!

I think you can spot when a web site has favoured the frame over the information because all the navigation and links are outside the main body of the information, as if the author has created this page in a vacuum, blisfully unaware of related pages on the same site. This is often true. In this article (by  CNN) about someone keeping Bigfoot in their fridge freezer, we can see the effect in action. A reporter has hurriedly written a report and some web-editors have added navigation. Many web pages aren’t as fleeting as a report about Bigfoot, they deserve more effort because they are going to be used and re-used again and again and the effort put into improving the way the page communicates will be rewarded (won’t it?).

As an exercise, take a quick look at the Bigfoot article and imagine how you might improve it (visually) .

So How Do I Add A Bit Of Visual Thinking To My Information?

It’s actually very easy. Work your way through your web site and simply try to represent the information using anything but text. At first it will seem a bit contrived, like trying to communicate the atomic structure of water using only mime, but stick with it. You are allowed to use charts, tables, diagrams… or perhaps calendars, timelines or how about sequential cartoons. Think about typography too… if each page had “one message” to get across – what would it be?

One cheat is, if you are writing about business is to use a photo that sort of resonates with your subject matter, like people in shirts sitting around a table in an expensive office drinking coffee and looking gorgeous. Try to avoid those sorts of cheats, they aren’t visual thinking. They don’t add any value to what you are trying communicate. They’re just lazy visual fluff. You may have seen lazy visual fluff on a web site near you.

Of course, not every page is easily translated into visual-ish, but you’ll be surprised how, with a pencil in your hand how you can easily improve your online experience, making ideas more approachable, concepts more accessible (in both meanings of the word) and ultimately, your products (whatever they are) more desirable.

Next week: Improving your SEO with melody.