New ways to visualise time

[Updated for Tableau Conference 2016]

You can watch the recording of this session from TC16 here.

The trend line is amazing. It shows peaks and troughs and trends. But if you only ever use trendlines to show time, you are missing insights in your data. What’s the best way to show time in visualisation? I cannot answer that: it depends on your data, the story you want to tell, your audience, and many other things.

One of my conference presentations is about visualizing time. This post contains links and resources from the session.

CollageWhich way is time?

Time can go up and down as well as left and right. Check out these:

  1. The Nasdaq viewer
  2. Information is Beautiful data breaches
  3. XKCD Global Temperature



Jacques Barbeu Dubourg's Chronographie from 1753
Jacques Barbeu Dubourg’s Chronographie from 1753

A history of the trend line

Someone invented the trend line. We forget that even the most common chart types were still ideas waiting to be thought of at some stage in the past. Here are the milestones I highlight in my talk

For more reading, I wholly recommend Cartographies of Time, an amazing book about the history of the timeline.

I also love this fascinating article about time as a dimension in which we find the quote “the mapping of time has made only modest intellectual progress since it was invented 250 years ago.”

6 new ways to visualize time

Cycle plots

A cycle plot (or is Batman?)
A cycle plot (is Batman hiding in the middle?)

Slope chart

Highlight tables and small multiples

Bump Chart

A bump chartA bump chart

Index chart

Other resources

  • The dashboard of my own which I featured, based on US Road Fatalities, was comeprehensively described and deconstructed in my “Design Month” series of posts in 2014.
  • I wrote about a similar topic for the Huffington Post, “New ways to see time.” It has some other examples.



Functionality or Beauty in #dataviz? Books to help you choose.

Can you have functionality and beauty in dataviz?
Can you have functionality and beauty in dataviz?

One of the great challenges in data visualisation is balancing functionality and beauty.

On the one hand, you want to make your data viz as understandable as possible. On the other hand, it has to be engaging enough for people to want to use it.

Different dashboards and visualisations need to be at different places on the functionality/beauty spectrum. For example, if you use a dashboard every day for monitoring processes in your business, you need something highly functional which allows you to see outliers as quickly as possible.

I get asked a lot about this balance. My answer is a recommendation to read 3 books.


At the functionality end of the spectrum, you have the books of Stephen Few. I highly recommend Information Dashboard Design. His books give you the foundational knowledge you need. If you are designing dashboards for operational monitoring, you cannot go wrong with this approach.


At this end of the spectrum, I’d put David McCandless. Get Information is Beautiful or Knowledge is Beautiful (I prefer the latter). He makes very popular, very beautiful data visualisations. Almost all are impractical for business situations. If you are trying to communicate anything accurately, I don’t recommend adopting his approach at all. I do not however dismiss what he does.

A sweet spot?

Is there a sweet spot which balances both functionality and beauty? The book which gets closest to acknowledging the tension between function/beauty and helping your deal with it is The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo.

But I can only afford one book…

If you’re starting out in data visualisation, definitely read something by Stephen Few. This is vital to understanding the foundations of data visualisation. Once you’re familiar with those, you can start to add more aesthetic aspects of your visualisations.

Your second book should be Alberto Cairo’s. Finally, get the McCandless book for some inspiration.

Whatever visualisations you build, test them on other people for effectiveness.

Let me know what you think.  If you’re going to the Tableau Conference in Las Vegas in a couple of weeks, I’ll be talking about this in my “Visual Design Tricks” sessions.