Superfluous elements – chart junk – but two useful additions

We revisit the same Winston & Strawn plot which appears as the plot as it was in the most recent post in its improved re-incarnation. Now, let’s take up four more observations.


The thick black line on the vertical y-axis adds nothing: It is an example of what is referred to as “chart junk”, an element of a plot that adds no useful information but clutters up the plot and makes it that much harder to grasp.


Second, neither axis has a label to explain what the axis represents. Labels are generally a good thing so that a plot can stand on its own without explanations in the report text.


Third, the plot lacks a title, which also helps make it self-contained. By that term I mean that a reader can understand what the plot has to offer without having to read elsewhere. It is true that the header of the page serves like a plot title, but it is in a different color and font and location than the plot itself. For PowerPoint decks, headers often serve a different purpose than as a surrogate plot title.


A final two steps took out ticks and panel borders. The text labels quite adequately match up to the horizontal bars, so the tiny tick marks on the left, y-axis fall into disfavor. And, nothing is added by the gray border around the plot, in my opinion. Just the facts, ma’am.


Let’s unveil the de-cluttered, self-contained plot!


Excessive use of colors in a plot; sorting an axis

Another aspect of the plot that has been discussed previously [Click here for the latest post in this series] should be called out.

Whoever prepared the plot chose to color differently each bar of the three risks most often selected. The blue bar represents “geographic locations in which the company operates”, a sort-of red bar represents another risk, and the third with yellow. In addition to those color distinctions, the plot also embeds the labels of those three risks in black boxes with white font. Shown below is the plot as it originally appeared.

Screenshot (6)_snip Winston pg19Neither of these graphical techniques add value to the plot or, indeed, make sense. They make readers work more to figure them out. Are the choices of colors significant, as in red-yellow-green means something? Is there a linkage between the coloring and the boxing? What do either or both tell us that the length of the bar and the label at the end don’t?

To emphasize the three leading risks, this plot could have sorted the risks in decreasing order of selection, as shown below.


It is conventional to place the largest item at the top and the others in descending order down to the smallest on the bottom. Sorting data by something meaningful makes a clearer point than random coloring and redundant boxing.