Charting a Communication Course

Blending a chart with the design qualities of an infographic can result in a clear picture of what you want to say. Two examples in the Sunday edition of The New York Times prove the point.

Charts are one of easiest forms of visual storytelling to create, but they are often overlooked because they require more thinking than typing words or dumping data into a spreadsheet. [Photo credit – New York Times]

The first appeared on the newspaper's prestigious op-ed page and was called an "Op-Chart." Running in a vertical column, the Op-Chart consisted of a series of squares that showed the relative value of a $1 in purchasing square footage in a number of American cities.

The least space per $1 was in several New York City neighborhoods such as the Flatiron District, Greenwich Village and Chelsea. You could get the most square footage for your $1 in the Berclair-Highland Heights section of Memphis.

In addition to the raw information, the Op-Chart conveyed the context of "space," which was the factor being compared. You could see, without any computation, that $1 would get you twice the square footage in Brooklyn as in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and four times the space in Sherman Oaks in Los Angeles.

The chart did its job with one paragraph of text and a blurb indicating the source of the information. It was efficient and effective.

The second chart showed up, again somewhat improbably, on the front page of the sports page. It showed the hole-by-hole results of the final round of the Masters Golf Tournament between the winner, Bubba Watson, and his 20-year-old challenger, Jordan Spieth. It quickly told the story of how Watson won.

You could read the accompanying story to find out the turning point in the match, but the chart told you all you needed to know. Spieth lost in the middle of the round on Holes 8-11, after leading after the 7th Hole. The chart contained two explanatory notes documenting what you could easily see

Charts are one of the easiest types of visual storytelling to create, but somehow manage to be overlooked or avoided.

Effective charts require design, not just stuffing data into a spreadsheet and spitting out a 3-D pie chart, though a 3-D pie chart sometimes can be enormously revealing.

When facing the challenge of explaining an issue, especially cause and effect or relative comparisons, consider the chart as a way to show what you mean or add depth and context to your words. Charts require different skills and mental muscles to create, but they can be worth the effort when they attract and inform your target audience.