Most research in cognitive science explores how we see things but little research is done on how we understand what we see.
Understanding is the ultimate test of how good your visualization is. So how can you make people understand? Show something familiar and analogize. If you know nothing else about visualization but pick the right analogy you are more than half way there. This is what a professional designer does – and there is no substitute for analogies.
How do you choose the right analogy? In this grid I organized analogies from the abstract down to the more detailed. I grouped them by similarity in shape. The goal is to enable you to quickly see the possibilities and “try them on” your information. With time you’ll be able to do all of this in your head. But for now this is a shortcut.
Let’s start simple and abstract.
Charts, graphs, and diagrams
Let’s start with circular shapes. (Most things in the universe are round!)
1. Pie Chart. The most popular and criticized. As Edward Tufte says, “…the only thing worse than one pie chart is lots of them”. The father of modern infographics, Otto Neurath, also rejected pie charts in favor on the more semantic iconographics. Pie charts are best used when divided into two segments: pie I’ve eaten and pie I have left. With two segments you can still easily compare the slices in size – something that becomes difficult with more than two, hence the criticism. Once you have three or more segments you have a comparison problem – our eyes are not used to comparing segments of a circle. We also are bad at comparing different pie charts. That leaves very few cases where a pie chart still works.
2. Venn Diagram. Here is another popular and misused analogy. One thing it does well – show overlap of two to three things. What it does not do well is show how large that overlap is. This diagram is better used when all you need to show is the overlap and nothing else, no data.
Example: I used it to visualize “The Anatomy Of determination” as a composition of 3 qualities: willfulness, discipline and ambition.
3. Concentric diagram. This is an onion sliced sideways. In the middle is the most important thing, or the purpose of something. The importance should decrease going outward with every layer.
Example: I used it in “Going Through Anti-Success” chart.
4. Circular chart. The principle here is comparing the length of something, where the whole circle is 100%. That mean we can’t change scale. This is a good way to display schedules, compare the lengths of lives, the time it takes to complete a project, etc. This is not good for showing periods that are so different in length that the smaller periods become invisible.
5. Bubble chart. This chart is good for roughly comparing quantities. Again, circles are hard to compare precisely. But sometimes impreciseness is to our advantage. Some information is best digested in a rough comparison, especially if every circle is orders of magnitude larger or smaller. This works well for comparing vastly different budgets, stars and planets, populations of countries, nutritional values of foods, and so on.
Example: I used it in “What The Internet Thinks About“ to show the amount of likes for media article.
6. Bubble race chart. Here we give meaning to the positions of bubbles. The closer to the top, the more educated the population of a particular country; or the hotter a star is. That is using the y axis only. Using both axes: the closer to the top and further to the right a bubble is, the more educated a population is and the longer they live.
Example: Hans Rosling uses this chart to show macro trends in world’s population.
7. Line chart – this chart is a series of points connected by straight lines – how dramatic the line looks quickly shows how something changes. This chart is versatile because it is so abstract. But little about it is memorable. Still, when the insight you want to communicate is just the changes in something – it works. This chart is the least infographic of all, with pie chart and bar chart not far behind.
Examples: temperature changes over, heart rate over the distance of a marathon, number accidents over time, etc.
8. Area chart – shows the difference between two or more line charts by filling with color the space below the line. Use this chart for trend comparison.
9. Scatter plot – this chart works well for showing clusters and outliers. Here we want to show exactly where the values fall. The reader will not distinguish points inside clusters, but the points outside of clusters and the clusters themselves will grab the attention.
Example: Best in Show, The Ultimate data-dog visualization by David McCandless, where instead of dots he used dog silhouettes
10. Sunburst chart – (also ring chart or a multi-level pie chart) this is a pie chart with a hierarchy. There is meaning in how close a given pie chart is to the middle. For example, if the center is the beginning of time, then the closest pie chart is the first period since the beginning. Then you can show the periods within that period. This chart is commonly used to show disk space usage because there is a hierarchical relationship between folders in a computer and sub-folders.
Example: chart representing disk usage in a Linux file system
11. Fan chart – shows things that double as they get further away from the center. It is used to show genealogy trees and evolution of ideas .
Example: Language Tree infographic from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
12. Windrose chart – shows how much of something goes into which direction. This chart started out as a way to show how strong the wind blew in each direction.
Example: “Diagram of the causes of mortality in the army in the East“ by Florence Nightingale
13. Bar chart – shows numbers through length of bars. Bar charts work better for showing a smaller number of values than bubble charts. The eye can easily compare the length of bars – use it when it’s important to show the exact value. But it’s better to not use it for comparison – use a tape diagram instead.
14. Tape diagram – shows ratios – how one number relates to another. Imagine you have a piece of tape to measure everything with. Your results will look like this: this is 2 pieces of tape long, this is 5 pieces of tape long, etc. To make the diagram more meaningful, sections of tape can be substituted with simple icons.
Example: I used it in From Poor To Rich infographic, and the women’s soccer infographic I created for Google Tape diagrams in combination with icons were frequently used in isotype.
15. Gantt chart – shows stretches of time and how they related to each other. This chart was first used for scheduling projects. Use it to show future predictions, court hearings, train schedules, etc.
Example: In “A Perspective on Time” gantt chart by Wait But Why, where every new line changes the scale of time, you can see the relationships between intervals of time within human experience and those that surpass our understanding.
16. Tree map – uses nested rectangles to show a hierarchy. This way you can divide rectangles into ever smaller ones (just make sure they are still visible). This way you can visualize budgets, then budgets within them, for example.
Example: “Causes Of Untimely Death” infographic by Thomas Porostocky
17. Grid – is both a system for arranging things and a visual analogy. As a visual analogy it lets you know immediately that there is no hierarchy – every cell is equal. Yet, there is order.
Example: the graphic above is a grid. Many lists, could be organized as a grid, if there is no better analogy. I visualize my daily thoughts and Paul Graham’s essays as a grid.
18. Periodic table – this is a grid where a cell the position within a column and /or row carries some meaning. For example, the more to the right your cell in the grid, the more reactive is the chemical element. Other examples are: the more to the right the more alcohol content a beverage has, but the further down the more sugar it contains.
Example: Periodic Table of Typefaces infographic.
19. Arc diagram – this one-dimensional diagram shows the interactions between any two nodes. It reveals patterns well. Here are some ideas: wars between any two nations, interactions between characters of a novel, collaborations between music artists, etc.
Example: interactions between Les Miserable characters, Codebases, Millions of lines of code by David McCandless
20. Sankey chart – here the thickness of the line represents numbers. Think of a Sankey chart like a river flowing from the source. When the river starts it is one solid line, but as it flows down, it splits into the main river, smaller rivers, creeks, and streams.
Example: Infographic by Lee Byron What Happens To Relationships
21. Chord chart – similar to the arc diagram, a chord chart shows interactions between two nodes. The thickness of the resulting lines shows how strongly any two interact. In a circular chord chart such as this make sure that all variables are of the same type (homogeneous). Sample uses of this chart are the connections between different presidents as measured by the number of phone calls between them, foreign trade partnerships, drug interactions, trips between major cities in the U.S., etc.
22. Radar chart – the length of each spoke shows a number, similar to a bar chart. But in this case we are not emphasizing the difference between them. We are more interested in a rough comparison and the fact that there is a certain number of spokes. This chart is good for analyzing components, characteristics, ingredients of things we normally perceive as a whole.
Example: In The Secret Of Success infographic the author shows attributes of success on axes of the radar chart, overlaying 3 graphs for 3 different groups of people.
23. Polar grid – shows characteristics of something similarly to a radar chart, but here you can add more spokes because you are not limited by the number of angles. Tip: you can make this chart in Illustrator using the chart tool
Example: This visualization of flavor profiles for 86 different types of whiskey uses polar grids in a grid layout for easy comparison between the subtleties of taste.
24. Spiral graph – a time sequence where events closer to the present start furthest from the center. Use this graph to show predictions of the future, evolution, history of time, etc.
Example: The Geologic Time Spiral – A Path to the Past infographic by USGS
25. Timeline – a time sequence where events are shown starting at the top left corners, moving in a spiral. The spiral prompts the eye to follow the narrative naturally, without having to snap back to the start of the next line as we do reading text. Use timelines to visualize biographies, stories, and instructions.
Example: I used it visualizing biographies of famous people.
26. Side-by-side comparison – two parallel lines with points itemizing the differences between two things.
27. Abstract Tree – shows hierarchies and groupings. Anything that has sub-types can be presented as a tree.
Example: The Apple Tree infographic by Mashable. The tree may have been easier to reed in reverse, top-to-bottom, if more readers are looking at it on a mobile device or desktop. But for a printed piece the bottom-to-top direction is fine.
28. Mind map – anything can be connected to anything here. Just like in the human mind, it seems, no matter how remote or unrelated, any number of things can connect. Use this for brainstorming, to show faulty logic, etc.
Example: I used it in the infographic “How To Be Productive”
29. Decision tree – shows how decisions flow from each other where the shape of a node shows what kind of a decision this is
Example: “Should I Text Him?”– this decision tree by Los Angeles information designer Becca Clason shows how much information one can condense into a decision tree without sacrificing readability.
30. Block scheme or flowchart – shows a solution or an algorithm. The nodes in a block scheme communicate a call to action based on their shape. A rounded rectangle is start or finish, a diamond is a decision, a parallelogram is input or output, and a rectangle is a process. Use this chart for decision making, visualizations of strategies, court decisions, debates, etc.
Example: Any algorithm could be represented as a block-scheme.
These are analogies because they are reminiscent of physical objects. But they are simplified and abstract.
31. Pyramid – shows a hierarchy where every upper layer is progressively smaller than every lower layer. This is how power and money are distributed in society. So are social classes and castes. More abstract notions also work – the Maslow pyramid of basic needs, degrees of politeness, nutritional value, etc.
Example: The Healthy Eating Pyramid infographic is a pyramid combined with illustration showing our modern understanding of nutrition. Although you should not read the size of shapes as the recommended portion, what it does show is their relative size and importance.
32. Funnel – the reverse of a pyramid. Example: finding a spouse among all the potential candidates as they go through different stages of selection; customer conversion, etc.
Example: Conversion funnel, sales funnel. Dante’s Circles of Hell is a funnel that shows detailed layers – the funnel implies that most people will not go to hell(!)
33. Spoke wheel – All spokes support the center equally. But their order is not important. This works for showing equal members or parts of anything: donors of an organization, types of knowledge, theories, probabilities,etc.
Example: Mark Vital used spoke wheel in “9 Types of Intelligence” infographic.
Also the urine wheel from the 16th century was used to diagnose patients based on the color, odor, and taste of their urine.
34. Cycle wheel – this type of wheel focuses on the never-ending nature of a cycle. This is especially helpful when we want to show that we are not sure what leads to what – a chicken to an egg or an egg to a chicken.
Example: Emotions come in cycles, as depicted in the Investor Sentiment Wheel infographic, investors think cyclically.
35. Staircase – this analogy emphasizes the number of steps it takes to achieve something. We can also compare staircases – a staircase with a lot of small steps can lead to the same height as a staircase of few but larger steps. That is insightful. People are familiar with staircases enough to know how difficult it is to go up depending on how challenging the staircase. So you can vary the difficulty of your staircase by making it steeper, with dense steps, or otherwise.
Example: “Which Steps Have You Reached Today” graphic shows the progression of one’s attitude towards taking action one step at a time. Also in The Structure Of Freemasonry painted by Everett Henry staircases are used to compare the title in 2 different rites.
36. Isotype – shows quantities of things with the number of objects (shaped as icons) rather than by enlarging object size like in a bar chart. Isotype is a visual language invented by Otto Neurath.
Example: The New York Times shows the number of deaths in Iraq this way.
37. Subway map – shows how routes with multiple stops intersect. Example: how lines of thought interact in your head, how different research objectives relate to each other, how the theories connect (or don’t connect), how the body transports blood, where stars are located in our galaxy and how they are moving relative to each other.
38. Speedometer chart – shows how increasing the value of something goes from safe to dangerous, slow to fast, etc.
Example: To compare train speeds, Italian designer Francesco Franchi put them all into an imaginary speedometer, arranged by speed and country.
39. Gears – moving one gear sets in motion all others. The insight is that even moving one small gear makes larger gears move. This analogy is about leverage: doing a small favor for someone may result in a much bigger reward down the road, a small program that benefits a disadvantaged community may save a lot of federal dollars in the long-term; building homeless shelters may result in reduction of crime, etc.
Example: Here I have to give a negative example: The Speed of Language infographic has brilliant research and message behind it, but the gears are not used to show connection in a mechanism, as they should.
40. Puzzle – this shows how irregular pieces fit together despite looking like misfits.
Example: This infographic of anonymous Internet users shaped their bubble chart like a puzzle to emphasize that anonymous Internet usage is a collaborative effort.
41. Lever – this shows how a small thing can balance or even outweigh a big thing. This analogy works for showing a negotiation strategy, growth potential, a trend in favor of an underdog.
Example: A balance between the weaker side and the stronger side, where the weaker side has some advantage.
42. Scales – shows comparison, especially when a decision needs to be made. Use it to show pros and cons, positives and negatives, smart and stupid solutions, etc.
Example: justice, accounting balance, balance of power, etc.
43. Chernoff faces – the human face is easily recognizable to people because we look at human faces daily to understand people’s motives, feelings, and familiarity. Every variable in the face – the eye, the nose, the mouth – all can be changed to convey information. The faces don’t just convey sentiment. Any metric that would easily be encoded into human sentiment would work here.
Example: Steve Wang used Chernoff faces to convey personalities of baseball coaches in thisinfographic for the New York Times.
44. Head profile – shows the compartments inside the head – where different thoughts reside and how they are connected.
45. Genealogy tree – this is a variety of an abstract tree that helps trace lineage
Example: succession of product, of people, ideas, etc.
46. Anatomy – points out parts of an object or person, describing what each part does. Examples of use are anatomy of an entrepreneur, anatomy of a rapper, computer etc.
Example: How to have a simple life – my personal plan to simplify my own life based on myself.
47. Maze – this analogy emphasizes how tangled the paths to a solution are; that there may be more than one way out; and what those outcomes are. Use this analogy to compare strategies, policies, etc.
Example: entanglement of ideas, policies, politics, etc.
48. Map – aside from mapping lands and oceans, maps can be used figuratively to show the world of the Internet for example, where the lands are popular websites, and the oceans are the deep web. The key is to make the analogy tight – make a legend. Since maps can get overly details, it is important to analogy every small part of it.
Example: Map Of The Internet by Martin Vargic, where Google, Apple, and pornography, among others, are continents. Another example, Patrice Barnabe’s map that makes for an emotional and highly personal self-portrait.
These are true analogies – they look like the physical objects you are familiar with.
49. Iceberg – shows that the visible part of something is much smaller than the underwater part. This is a standard analogy for describing effort, success, and abstract processes.
Example: This infographic about SEO strategies, while not particularly visual, still succeeds in making the abstraction of SEO more physical.
50. Mountain – shows a challenge where winning means climbing to the top. The exact terrain of the mountain is your opportunity to carry on the analogy – is the peak out of reach, are the slopes steep all the way, or does it get easier to climb as you get higher?
Example: I used it in How To Never Give Up infographic poster
51. Island – to show an isolated process, where the boundaries are clearly marked, but life inside is complex, an island works as an analogy.
Example: sub-cultures, a city, a corporation’s life, etc.
52. Sandwich – multi-layered things with layers spread apart and suspended in the air reveal their innards. Buildings, vehicles, soil, and, of course, sandwiches, or any other dishes, but probably not people and other living creatures.
Example: The infographic from Around the World: An Atlas for Today published by Business Insider reveals the interior of the White House.
53. Universe – this analogy describes things that revolve around a bigger thing without a visible force pulling on them – you can’t see gravity, but you know it exists – you feel it. This analogy works well for how people gravitate to an idea, for example. Or what kind of investors startups attract. You can build a galaxy out of these solar systems to compare them.
Example: The Startup Universe by Accurat compares start valuations as if they were planets and implies the concentricity of gravity to show successive funding rounds.
54. Clock face – definitely a familiar object to all, the clock makes insight obvious: time can be divided into discrete parts. Using different density of color we can give the segments a new meaning – how busy a building becomes during certain hours, etc.
Example: The best use of clock face I’ve seen is where there is no clock at all, but because people are familiar with clocks, it is easy to tell what time it is – in this case what time famous authors rose and fell asleep shown in this infographic on author’s routines from Brain Pickings.
55. Layers – different levels of something that can be peeled off to get to its heart. This is how you get to the truth, or the secret. Examples are investigations of what the budget was spent on, what excuses people use, etc.
Example: Components of Water budget infographic describes the layers that affect the cost and quality of water.
56. Roller coaster – here the emphasis is on the times when things go from good to bad in a second, repeatedly. This is reminiscent of running a business, doing creative work, being in a relationship, parenting, and emotions in general.
Example: The Entrepreneur Roller Coaster by David Hauser
57. Book shelf – the size of books shows the volume of information. Their order on the shelf also conveys information.
Example: Top 10 Most Read Books in the World infographic by Jared Fanning.
58. Root – shows how something takes hold. Examples: ideas, immigrants, virus in a body, celebrity in the media, etc.
Example: The Root of the Problem infographic shows where the problem with increased carbon dioxide starts – at the roots.
59. Tree – shows branches splitting into ever smaller ones ones. This analogy describes knowledge, the spread of ideas, evolution of species, etc.
Example: The Tree of Knowledge Obfuscation infographic presents the different types of knowledge fallacies and how they relate to each other.
60. Circulatory system – this shows movement from the heart towards the outer parts of anything. Examples of use would be a transportation system – how the heart of the city is connected with the outskirts. Another feature of this analogy is showing two different things are moving depending on the direction – good blood from the heart and bad blood to the heart.
Example: supply chains, transportation hubs – any system with a figurative heart and flow to and from the heart.
These are stories, or a series of analogies. The key is that these stories are familiar enough that we don’t have to retell them, but we should analogize every part of them.
61. Life of a building – life activities in the different rooms of a building show how the same person or things can act completely differently depending on where they are in the building.
Example: I used it in the infographic How Recruiting Works for TheResumator explaining how companies recruit talent, where each floor is a step in the process. The Kowloon Walled City is another timeless piece by Adolfo Arranz using this analogy the best way I have seen yet.
62. Life of a city – cities are notable for structuring their inhabitants into grids of apartments, streets, and neighborhoods while at the same time allowing for entropic movement along the sidewalks. This analogy works well for showing how a structure process works, combining the predictable with the random.
Example: I used it in my infographic “How Startup Funding Works” to show how when a company grows, it occupies bigger buildings. Another example is an infographic I created to help explain how revolutionary technology by Iotera will change communication between people and things within a city.
63. Marathon – a marathon is a type of timeline. The emphasis here is on the the state of things as the race progresses, especially at the final steps. This analogy works well for things that are easier to start than to finish: building a company, writing a novel,
Example: I used it in my “Startup Marathon” infographic
64. Evolution – this is a type of a timeline as well, except here we are looking at a gradual change in something. The result of the evolution is something dramatically different than the start. Versions of computers over time, understanding of science, etc.
Example: Mobile Phone Size Evolution infographic
65. Food chain – in many areas of life there is big fish and then there is small fish. The big eat the small. This analogy applies to company acquisitions, to competition where there is only one winner, to budget reallocation, etc.
66. Concentration – when we want to compare things that never occur together, intentionally concentrating them in one place for comparison is powerful. This way we can compare landmarks that stand half a world away from each other, famous people separated by time and distance, countries that aren’t neighbors. Giving a bit of an overlap between them makes this effect even more visual.
Example: World’s tallest buildings that are on hold, when concentrated into an imaginary city, look like a preview of the future. To see how world’s tallest buildings have changed since over the last 100 years, see this visualization made by George F. Cram in the 1880s.
67. Experiment – shows where things are connected in an unusual way, especially where they are combined and then separated and combined again. Experiments are synthetic, though, and not as relatable as other natural analogies. Still, an experiment works for showing abstract research methodologies – the mixing of liquids and their movement in tubes.
Example: “Can Entrepreneurship Be Learned?” – in this infographic I created for World Bank I used the experiment analogy on page 2 to show the ingredients of entrepreneurship. Another example is the nimble science of company valuation that I visualized as a science experiment in “How Startup Valuation Works”.
68. Factory – a factory is a man-made environment. Use this analogy only if all the natural ones are not suitable. Not everyone has been to a factory. Some factories, especially those employing a lot of robots would seem alien to most people and would become an analogy within analogy – which doesn’t help. But most people would recognize a mechanical process inside a factory – the conveyor belt, the widgets, the assembly line.
Example: London-based designer Jing Zhang is a master of “factorifying” everyday objects to help people understand how invisible things work. Here is her imaginary factory of the tea making process inside a teapot.
69. Tool set – describing how someone works can come down to their eye-view – what does that person see while they are working or following a process.
Example: This infographic on the formal dining setting pays special attention to where all the “tools” are on the surface.
70. Conveyor belt – This is an automatically that adds or subtracts something from a series of identical objects. Schools or education in general (in the more cynical view of it), a creative process like novel writing, the passing of a law, quality control – all can be analogized as a conveyor belt. There may be a pejorative meaning to this analogy for things that most of us think should be personalized, like education and health care.
Example: Will I Succeed In My Startup infographic
71. Road – anyone has walked down a road. Anything that can be broken down into steps can be visualized as a road. A baking recipe, a way to sign up on a website, get a surgery, become an astronaut, pack a suitcase, etc. Any timeline will work as a road. But a road is more emotional than a timeline – so first ask if your message should be emotional.
Example: Startup Marathon infographic
72. Machine – again, a man-made object. Any contraption, even imaginary, will work as long as its parts are familiar. This analogy gives you a lot of freedom – you can construct any machine – but again there is, a danger of creating an analogy with analogy. If you are going to create a machine, same user interface principles apply as if you were actually making one – it should be clear which buttons do what, where the process starts and ends.
Example: this vintage infographic “Der Mensch als Industriepalast” explains the inner workings of the human body.
The key to making a visualization that works is connecting what your reader has seen before to new information. The more familiar the object the better. Remember, most people do not look for details in what surrounds them. Don’t expect most readers to remember what a robotic arm looks like and then analogize to it. As a rule of thumb, nature is more familiar to us than man-made objects. Things comparable in size with our bodies are more familiar than very small or very large things.
How to find the best visual analogy?
Follow there 5 principles:
1. It looks familiar to most of people
2. It has a structure
3. It matches your narrative’s structure
4. It is visible (something that can be seen)
5. It is visual (something that is easy to see)
So, a good visual analogy is an image of a very familiar physical object that closely matches your information in structure.
What sort of objects are familiar to people? Between nature and man-made objects, nature wins (at least for now).
Objects with fewer details are more familiar – because most people don’t look for detail. That means you should give readers a way to see your information design with and without details. At bird’s eye view, and up close.
If we take all detail out of objects, we are left with abstractions – graphs and charts. They are unemotional, and unmemorable. But it is a starting point. And a practical way to visualize information fast.
Therefore, it makes sense to look at all visual information as a continuum from the detailed and familiar (trees, stars, cities, etc) to the abstract and simplified (charts and graphs). We can think of this continuum in the reverse because it takes less effort to create an abstract visualization. But it’s worth remembering that for your readers – it is the opposite: they are emotionally attached to detail; they find meaning in familiar objects; and they prefer the story to be visible. That describes most humans. But are most humans your readers?
This leads us to the million dollar question: who exactly are you readers? Here, I assume that the global Internet community of today – that is 3 Billion people, are your readers. If you create a visualization, wouldn’t you want it to be understandable to most people who might see it? Most people are not statisticians and not artists – they look at the world like people do, probably just like you.
Last, we know that we are visualizing information. But what sort of information? There is a well established field of data visualization – but data is something less than information. There is a field of information design – we are here. Since I strive to show the connection of the information to the reader as well as the information itself, numeric or not, I will call this knowledge visualization. Knowledge is information that you managed to connect to your life experience. Information becomes knowledge once it is acquired, understood, used, digested, or otherwise experienced.
In the end what matters is a strong connection to a mental image. This connection explains the information you are visualizing without you having to tell it – you have no space to do that in a visualization.
Originally posted 2016-01-26 15:01:10.