visual makeover: income and expenses

When I present my storytelling with data class, the second half of the session is typically conducted as an interactive workshop. I ask participants to submit graphs that they have created or encountered and would like feedback on and pick a handful that we focus on in small groups. After the groups have dissected the visuals in light of the course learnings, we discuss together and I review my own makeovers of the selected visuals.

The following visual is one that we focused on in a past session. The audience was comprised of grant-makers from philanthropic organizations. Here is the original visual that was submitted:

Those who know me are familiar with my opinion on 3D. In short: don't do it! Here, not only are the bars 3D, but with different rotation set on each of the charts (I think in part due to the different placement of the legend). I guess to spice things up? Hmmm.... (don't do it!)

I believe there are two root issues that lead to all of the problems with these graphs:

  1. Not enough time was spent considering what's most critical to share with the audience. What do they need to know? Is it how income and expenses have changed over time? ...how they breakdown in a given period? ...how they relate to each other? Because no decision was made on which information is crucial (or at least that decision isn't reflected in what's shown), the visuals don't answer any of these questions very well. In other words, by trying to show too much, the visual isn't showing anything particularly effectively.
  2. Excel makes it easy to do bad things. Some of it is the default settings (gridlines, colors, trailing zeroes on axis labels); some of it was done on purpose (most notably, 3D...don't do it!)

The changes I recommended are as follows:

  • Strip out clutter: gridlines, extraneous axis label digits, 3D, meaningless color
  • I don't think the historical income/expenses are necessary
  • Add a story in words: help the audience understand what they should know
  • Make the title active vs. descriptive (use this prime real estate wisely!)

Here is what it looks like when these changes are made:

What do you think? One piece of feedback I received from the participants was concern that an audience might perceive rows and read across (comparing Program expenses to Grants income, for example), which doesn't make sense. I think this could be solved by drawing a light vertical line between the expenses and income graphs.

Here (as elsewhere), I present my makeover not as the right answer, but as one possible solution to a data visualization challenge by someone who knows a little about and takes care in the visual design of her data graphics. I've made the assumption here that the most recent year's breakdown of income and expenses is the most important. If that is not the case, then this is not the right visual. If income and expenses over time is also important, you could perhaps show something like the following.

If both the breakdown of income and expenses as well as how they've trended over time are important, I'd definitely recommend breaking them into two different visuals, as I've done above, and making the relevant point on each vs. trying to cram it all into one visual.

What is your view? Leave a comment with your thoughts!