Simple v simplistic: if McCandless reworked Minard:

There has been much interesting debate about David McCandless’ Information Is Beautiful this week, initiated by a well written critical piece by Stephen Few. I am pleased he has challenged the orthodox view that McCandless is the answer to the data visualisation industry’s problems.

On both FlowingData and Stephen’s own blog, there is debate about the difference between “simple” and “simplistic” graphics. This is a hard point to describe, and there are two comments on Stephen’s blog (by DR, and Stephen himself) that made me realise that a picture would emphasise the difference. I wondered how McCandless, if the accusation of simplicity is correct, would rework what’s often claimed to be one of the greatest data visualisations.

Consider the classic work by Charles Minard showing Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 march on Moscow. This graphic, I believe, fits Stephen’s definition of simple. Sure, there are many dimensions being displayed (soldier numbers, temperature, location, etc) but once the viewer understands that, the powerful anti-war message is unavoidable. The waste of life is brutally clear and well contextualised by the time location and temperature:

Minard's march on Moscow (from Wikipedia)#

(image from Wikipedia:

If McCandless is to be accused of simplicity, how might a simplistic version look? I think it would be like this:

Why? The simplistic approach tries to strip away as much data as it can. Minard’s main point was the loss of life. The version above shows just that and no more. One could argue that therefore it is more effective. But it isn’t. Minard’s simple graph gives much more context without any fluff and that, to me, is the difference between “simple” and “simplistic”.

Update: Fixed the spelling of David McCandless’ name – sorry about the typos

7 thoughts on “Simple v simplistic: if McCandless reworked Minard:”

  1. A chart is not neutral, a chart is an argument, what is left out is not Innocent, and what you choose to emphasize is a personal choice. Seth Goding, like McCandless, believes that we should remove as much data as possible.

    Tufte, on the other hand, believes that more data is better. But he says “to clarify, add detail”, not “to clarify add data”. When we make a chart we must try to understand when data becomes detail and when data becomes noise. Easier said than done.

  2. The thing everybody is missing about McCandless is that he is not and has not trained as a designer. He is a pop star, who happens to be focussed on the area of graphics rather than music. The Beatles might be musical candy in comparison to say, Michael Tippett, but it is Paul McCartney who owns the Mull of Kintyre.

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