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This Interactive Chart is Great, Except for How it’s Not

I really want to love this epic interactive chart on NYTimes.com as much as I’ve loved previous ones.

It certainly succeeds in what it set out to do: present data in a visual form that comes as close as possible to demonstrating the unequal distribution of economic impact during the period in time popularly called, “the Great Recession.” I want to love it because it is so rooted in principles I appreciate as a reader: the use of devices such as “sparklines” that enable a vast array of datapoints to be displayed together, in one cohesive, easily comprehensible block.

Some may confuse this design approach with “infographics,” but infographics are like refrigerator art compared to the work of the gifted visual data designers (like those at NYTimes.com who created this) who are steeped in the work and teachings of Edward Tufte. (My current example to show people what “Tuftean influenced design is” is by pulling out my iPhone and clicking on the Yahoo! Weather app and counting up the near 30 data points displayed coherently and pleasingly in less than 7 square inches.

Unfortunately, and despite it being better than 99.9% of the attempts by other general news websites, this specific NYTimes.com chart takes on too many challenges. While it claims the interactive feature is 255 charts, in reality, those 255 charts each are collections of smaller charts and datapoints. There are literally thousands of charts in the form of sparklines and other types of visualized data represented in this chart.

Perhaps Professor Tufte will see this chart and view it as an homage, and be pleased at how much it draws (no pun intended) from his teachings. However, in my opinion as a reader who is the intended audience for what these charts illustrate, I feel like I’m on the wrong side of an out-of-control PowerPoint slide. (A reference to this.) Come to think of it, I’d love nothing more than to be wrong about Edward Tufte in the same way such a slap-back is portrayed in one of my favorite Woody Allen scenes of all times, in Annie Hall when Marshall Mcluhan steps into the scene to tell a blow-hard college professor, “I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”

Even when something works well, you’ve got to stop at some point and say, enough is enough. You have to understand that trying to show everything results in showing nothing as the reader is overwhelmed before they begin to explore the insight captured in the data. It’s like a BuzzFeed headline that says “top 100 anything” and you skip it because you only an deal with the “top 10.”

I really want to love this feature because its creators are pushing the edge of greatness in the visual display of information while others have corrupted it with awful infographics (like the one I added as a cartoon above) that are about as helpful at actually conveying insight as a Pentagon PowerPoint.