Chart Junk vs. Eye Candy: What’s the Difference?

Posted to Design

There's this one phrase that really bothers me when it comes to data graphics. No doubt you've heard it or read it, and maybe it even popped into your head once or twice.

The phrase I'm talking about is: "Edward Tufte is crying."

People like to say this when they see a graphic that doesn't fit the ET law of high data/ink ratio. Then after the commenter has declared that ET is in fact a very emotional man, the graphic is classified "chart junk."

First off, I'm pretty sure ET isn't that melodramatic. He doesn't cry over a bad graph nor does he die a little inside or roll over in his grave if he were dead. I don't think an angel get its wings every time he rings a bell either. Although I could be wrong about the latter.

Second, not everything that fails to fit the mold of a traditional graph, visualization, or whatever you want to call it, is chart junk. One person's chart junk is another person's eye candy. What you see just depends on what angle you're looking at it from.

Eye Candy

Generally speaking, eye candy is a visual treat. It doesn't have to do with data, but for the purpose of this post, let's pretend it does.

Now for me, eye candy can be a well-designed traditional chart or infographic, or it can be more abstract. It's essentially anything that stimulates my brain in a positive way. It might be because of some really impressive design or it could be about careful analysis. Or it could be both. Maybe it's data art or maybe it's visualization.

For example, a lot of transparencies from GOOD magazine are misclassified as chart junk, but a lot of the graphics are not meant to be read as traditional charts. They're some blend between visualization and data art, or I guess information aesthetics if you want to give it a name.

Sure, a lot of the data that GOOD makes visual could quickly be visualized as a bar graph or time series plot, but they're going for something less mechanical. They're trying to (artistically) express a story in the data.

I'm not saying that every transparency is spot on, but I think it's a lot more than some give the designers behind the graphics credit for.

At the other end of the eye candy spectrum are graphics from The New York Times, but I don't have to argue much for them since they're universally loved, right?

In the end, both GOOD and NYT are showing truth. It's just that one is more opinionated while the other is about getting just the facts out.

Chart Junk

With that said, there is plenty of chart junk out there. I point it out sometimes, but I usually leave that job to Kaiser.

I haven't picked up a Tufte book in a while, but I think of chart junk as the stuff on graphs that are supposed to be just the facts. It's the stuff that obscures the data, misleads readers, or makes graphs hard to read i.e. mislabeled axes, retina-burning colors, or gratuitous use of the third dimension. It comes from poor design or a misunderstanding of the data.

Chart junk also usually finds its way onto graphs that are trying to be "visually stimulating." You'll find these in a lot of Powerpoint presentations where someone graphed some data using the program's defaults and then smacked some weird clip art to make it um, cool, I guess?

Background images on graphs are also pretty ridiculous. Rarely do they work, so if you're unsure, it's best to just leave those out.

The Difference

Alright, so I've provided some examples, but what's the difference? Well, to be honest, there's no clear cut line between chart junk and eye candy. It has something to do with beauty in the eye of the beholder.

But if I were to take a stab, I'd say the main difference between the two is that chart junk comes out of carelessness or perhaps simply a lack of experience, while eye candy comes out of careful thought and an abundance of experience.

What do you think – Is there a difference between the two?

20 Comments

  • Thanks Nathan, I think over this issue everyday. In my opinion is one of the big misunderstanding in most of the discussions about data and information visualization (not mentioning knowledge). I’m always suspicious of any algorithm, as someone seems to consider the ET formula.
    What I see is that often people who classify visualizations as “chart junk” (or “eye candy”) don’t know both the purpose (including the target) and the context of the visualization. What could be judged “junk” from a “chart” point of view could be an excellent communication artifact: design (if we are talking about that) it’s all about failing or succeeding in reaching the (communicative) goal.

  • Nathan, I often see the opposite phrase: “Edward Tufte would be proud” and I hate it.

    I am not comfortable with the idea that chart junk is the product of low design skills. Too often I see what I would call “glorified chart junk” made by designers.

    I prefer to use “chart junk” to mean everything that do not belong to the chart, has no inherent added value and actually harms the message (interferes with pattern detection). 3D effects usually belong to this category.

    I would use “eye candy” to signify everything that calls the reader’s attention without sacrificing/obfuscating the message. So, using textures instead of a plain color would be eye-candy (depending how you use them).

    Since these definitions emphasize function, not aesthetics, I would say that both designers and non-designers are free to add chart junk and eye-candy to their charts.

  • Hi Nathan, I think there are 2 conflicting set of rules here.
    That clarity and legibility have a precedence on anything else, and that good execution of a chart is necessary to facilitate understanding and assess credibility of the material.

    those 2 rules overlap and contradict each other. the one which is most important depends on the context: let GOOD charts be, well, GOOD charts, and don’t try funny stuff with, say, medical data.

    I feel Tufteans (?) are more vocal than their counterparts because software vendors encourage users to use sophisticated effects which are not necessary especially in the hands of a non-expert.This trend needs to be corrected.

    Anyway, while Tufte’s ideas are still applicable the wording of the data/ink principle doesn’t really work for online interactive charts so it could be time to rephrase it.

  • 99 out of 100 people think their “chart junk” is simply “eye candy” – if you can’t tell a compelling story with data without extraneous crap, you’re doing it wrong.

  • My problem with the GOOD magazine graphics is that they seem to be most often referred to, without much thought of course, by others as interesting depictions of the data, when often-times they are skewing the visualization to make a point about the data through the story-telling medium of visualizations. OK, I suppose, but it’s deceptive and more marketing than data visualization at that point – and humans are poor judges of statistical differences using their eyes and ears.

    So is it a valid medium to use data to prove a particular point of view through fancy chart and graph visualizations? I think no, because it is more likely to deceive or confuse people more than it will enlighten them. Show them the data visually in an accurate fashion, and then tell them the story and your opinions through words based on what you see in the data – it would be excellent if more journalists did that! But trying to pack all of that thought into one image by bending the rules with fancy visual tricks is a bad idea.

    • okay, so i chose GOOD, because, they’re kind of on the extreme, but even stuff from groups like Stamen are mislabeled. my main point is that we should be more open-minded before we decide if a graphic/viz/chart is good or bad.

  • I’d be interested in the chart junk/eye candy diagnosis on these: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vinspired_voicebox/sets/72157622452228072/

    Firm believer that data can be engaging.

    I don’t think we necessarily got it spot on with these, for example, I’d like it if we didn’t have to mark out the percentages, but the pictures help cement the topic.

    There’s more here: http://voicebox.vinspired.com/results/

    The interactive-ness of being able to select the filters to view visualisations on different demographic samples is kind of fun… for a data geek :)

  • This is the first place I’ve ever seen “eye candy” used in a non-pejorative sense. I’ve seen it used as a slightly less critical synonym for chart junk.

    Also:
    “eye candy comes out of careful thought and an abundance of experience”
    So does much chart junk.

    I like Jorge’s distinction that chart junk is what doesn’t belong, and eye candy (in the unfamiliar new sense) includes embellishments that might catch the eye without obscuring or skewing the information.

    So as far as I am concerned, GOOD is mostly chart junk.

  • I have to admit that I’m a fan of Tufte. Do I believe that we all need to bow in honor of the Almighty One and follow his every word? No. But I do think that people like him, and others such as Stephen Few, have articulated reasonable standards that graphic designers and analysts alike should strive to follow.

    Unfortunately, many websites and blogs continually post examples of what you might call “eye candy”. I can appreciate some of the hard work and artistic endeavors that graphic designers put into creating some visually appealing images. But first and foremost they are mostly just that: interesting images (or I guess “information aesthetics” as you suggest). In these cases then, let’s recognize them just as examples of art or fun graphic design, and not as examples of good charts or data visualizations.

    In many cases (particularly with the folks at GOOD…the recent one on crime statistics is pertinent example), charts contain simply too much extraneous, distracting and misleading (whether purposefully so or not) graphic elements or images. Really these are just bells and whistles that at best distract the viewer from the data, or at worst skew the data for the viewer.

    So for me, it is hard for me then to differentiate between what is intended as “eye candy” and chartjunk. They are one in the same and should be avoided in good examples of charts. Data presented simply, accurately and cleanly in a well-designed chart will tell a story sufficiently.

  • The four categories I prefer to use are:
    1- information
    2- redundant encoding (which is good, makes data easier to absorb)
    3- decoration (makes the grapic more appealing, doesn’t add or detract from the data)
    4- noise (distracts, makes data harder to acquire)

    These are from Pg 27 of Horton, W. (1991). Illustrating Computer Documentation: the Art of Presenting Information Graphically on Paper and Online. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

  • Regardless of differing definitions, Ryan’s comment “if you can’t tell a compelling story with data without extraneous crap, you’re doing it wrong” is spot on. So is Paulo’s comment “it’s all about failing or succeeding in reaching the (communicative) goal”

    Design embellishment is not necessarily bad, if it serves to help attract readers without detracting from the underlying story. But the problem with many infographics I see is that the embellishments are more prominent than the story, and often crowd it so much that not much story is told.

    The yardstick of success for any great infographic should be “has this done the best job possible of attracting and then informing/engaging the audience?”…and not “does this look cool, or what?”

    Don’t focus overly on the sizzle, to the exclusion of the sausage.

  • like you said, Nathan, it’s probably just all in the eye of the beholder.

    chart junk is just the ‘ugly’ extreme of a ‘Superfluous/Redundant Elements Continuum’ where eye candy sits on the other end.

    like you said, examples on Junk Charts are great examples of the former, and GOOD transparencies of the latter.

    then, imagine a different set of axes, the ‘Meaningfulness Continuum’ which describes how well a visualisation communicates a particular meaning/purpose/story/narrative/intent.

    if there are design elements/features which help build the story, then they are no longer chart junk or eye candy.

  • What do you think – Is there a difference between the two?

    No.