Ugly chart used to confuse readers

Charles Blow on this unnecessarily complex chart used to show the network of Obamacare:

Maybe it’s the former graphics/art director in me, but I get really offended when people use charts to confuse rather than to clarify.

Take a look at this monstrosity released today by the Joint Economic Committee minority, which is led by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Representative Kevin Brady (R-Texas).

To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes: they’re using this chart like a drunken man uses lampposts – for support rather than for illumination.

Really, Joint Economic Committee? Look – I’m not going to pretend I know all the intricacies of the US health care system, but this is clearly chart abuse.

Looking at this horribly designed piece of propaganda makes me want to throw up. I’m throwing up right now. Dang it. Someone owes me a new keyboard.


  • Something informative should not look like a PCB. kthxbai

  • Don’t throw up! If you think he got it wrong, make a well organized chart to show the truth.

  • Given that the chart was generated by the minority of the committee (i.e., Republicans), it’s obvious to me that the chart is intended to represent Obamacare as a bowl of noodles. No Republican would ever want to highlight an opposing party’s project/plan/policy in a positive light. (The same can be said of Democrats gerrymandering anything Republicans might be attempting to put in place.)

  • No surprise here. In fact, there is no doubt that this is a microcosm of the final product. Having worked in government IT, this is typical of a large scale government enterprise system. The Health Care bill is a disastrous mess. How can some politicians cobble together a 2000+ page bill and get the interfaces even close to being right. Just being government run involves many of those relationships. Charts like this are extremely useful (especially in IT), especially if you can hide/show specific relationships. It is what it is, my friend. They had a chance to keep it simple by taking increment steps, but chose to cram the kitchen sink down our throats.

  • Skid-Vicious July 29, 2010 at 5:19 am

    So, this is the “transparency” that Obama promises?

  • Looking at this horribly designed piece of propaganda makes me want to throw up. I’m throwing up right now. Dang it. Someone owes me a new keyboard.

    something tells me that the chart has served it’s purpose

  • I agree with Andrew, if the above chart is needlessly complex, surely some supporter of Obamacare can produce a chart that clearly shows the relationship of all of the new committees and bureaucracies created to the old ones already in place.

    I’m guessing that this diagram is already more illuminating than the 2000+ pages of the bill. If you are looking for better examples of intentional obfuscation, try reading legislation sometime.

    • I agree with Spencer. Information is always tricky to show as much as possible while not hiding critical elements … which is what makes me subscribe to “flowing data” [here] and “Wallstats” [elsewhere].

      Nathan; do a armlock on this noodle-graphic to show what real data-know how can do!

    • It’s not that Obamacare is clear and concise. I am sure it’s plenty confusing. But just about any government document is going to look like this if you go with JEC’s design principles.

  • I suspect that the original poster likes health care reform a lot more than he is “offended” by the chart. I wonder how often he cites “chart abuse” for programs he approves of?

    All charts are to some extent propaganda. If anything, they’ve been more often abused to deceive people into thinking crap is golden than to make beautiful things ugly.

    What’s really abusive is acting like your debate is over the methods (charts) when it is extremely likely the real debate is over policy (health care reform). It’s too bad one can’t stick to the merits of the actual issue, pro and con.

  • Instead of whining “Chart abuse! Chart abuse!”, why not do better, or challenge your readers to do better?

    According to the press release, the designers of that chart discarded two thirds of the potential content and still ended up with spaghetti.

    What would an effective presentation of the same data look like?

  • That chart, however prettily arranged, should make anyone who understands it throw up. A proper health care relationships chart should have just two circles: customers and providers.

  • So Senator Brownback & Rep Brady read through the entire bill, understood it and distilled into one chart! If you have any questions on health care, drop them an email!

  • From about a year ago, before the reform bill passed:

  • Mordekai said, “That chart, however prettily arranged, should make anyone who understands it throw up. A proper health care relationships chart should have just two circles: customers and providers.”

    And cut the insurance companies out of the mix? They’d never allow for that!

    (And, personally, I wouldn’t like it either. I don’t want to have to be forced to hold a huge amount of uninvested savings so that I can afford a surgery if I get into a freak accident).

    Interestingly, though, that “two circle” system you describe was precisely the experience I had when I lived in England for a year. I broke my foot, went to the hospital, got x-rayed, got patched up, etc, and I was done. No fuss, no insurance bureaucrat telling me I wasn’t covered.

    Of course, as most people know, this chart doesn’t describe the recent health care law; it describes the health care industry. Most of the circles and lines on that chart already existed before the bill passed.

    • Paul TREHIN August 5, 2010 at 3:16 am

      Beyond the ugly chart problem, I live in France and such a system has been implemented for about 50 years. Social secutity taxes have been taken directly from my salary. At first I thought it was a high price to pay…

      However and unfortunately, this high price has become useful for me. In the past two years I’ve had to be hospitalized several times and in two cases complex surgical operations were necessary: first having detected a cancer on my left kidney which required kidney ablation. Then about a year later, metastasis of that cancer were discovered in my brain. I had to have brain surgery with a very experienced neuro surgeon who managed to extract the two metastasis while leaving me in general good health (This was a 7 hours surgery) At that point my regular contributions to social security taxes don’t seem that high anymore.

      I should say also that beyond self protection against accidents of life, such contributions must be seen as a contributions to the society in which we live… I have many examples of formerly well paid highly skilled employees who found themselves fired by the very large corporation that employed them before. They are now in difficult situations and should health problems, such as those that happened to me, hit them, they wouldn’t be in a position to pay for hospital and surgery. Note that In France private insurances are asking for much more monney than what I was paying out of my salary to social security. This is due to spreading the risks over a much larger population.

      To conclude the European Commission which is very pro private enterprise and free market institution. Nevertheless it plublished a document entitled “COSTS OF NON-SOCIAL POLICY: TOWARDS AN ECONOMIC
      Which puts in perspective the benefits that private businesses get from having a society in which there is social protection implemented, although this has a cost, the cost of not having it would be far more damaging.
      The integral text can be found here:


  • The idea of chart design is to convey ideas graphically, right?

    Why is it invalid to use a chart to convey the idea that something is too complicated? Could it be that you oppose it because you disagree ideologically with its authors?

    Sincerely and Not a Republican,

    Bill Mill

  • I know the whole never ascribe to malice that which can be accounted for with incompetence thing, but this reeks of self-satire.

  • Nathan, you blew a good opportunity to show how much better job you could have done.

    If you think you understand Obama Care well enough to make it easily understood visually, give it a shot, chief.

    Perhaps you sense that there are some things about government bureaucracy that the masses should not be privy to? Keep them in the dark so they will do as they are told?

  • As a longtime fan, I’d love to see you take the details and make them as clear and non-confusing as possible.

  • Charts are like statistics – one can design a chart to support or refute any point of view.

    If the goal of the chart was to show how the new health care system will be complex, bureaucratic, and inefficient, then it worked for me.

    If the new health care system will be simpler than this, then let’s see that chart with the article.

    If that chart doesn’t exist, then who’s to say if this chart convolutes or clarifes the proposed system.

  • Much of the “complexity” of the graph seems to from the boxy, wrapping lines (e.g. follow “your new health care system” to the “individuals” box). There is no indication that this is the most parsimonious arrangement of boxes.

    I’m thinking there are many applications designed to uncover efficient representations of complex networks – probably many biological (food webs, evolutionary trees, etc.). Someone (not I!) should try recreating it in Protovis:

  • Nathan, there are plenty of conservatives (and independents for that matter) that look at the link below as a beautiful piece of well-designed propaganda that makes them want to vomit all over their keyboard:

    The accuracy of these two very different health care charts that use almost the exact same data is distinctly colored by a person’s ideology and attitudes about health care reform.

    Data visualizations are inherently editorial – they are the sum product of dozens of editorial design decisions that ultimately add up to a distinct point of view. There are ways to minimize (and maximize) its editorializing, but we have stop fooling ourselves into believing that there is always a right way and a wrong way in this business.

    Beautiful design does not necessarily equal accurate design.

    Bad design does not necessarily equal inaccurate design.

    p.s. For those that are interested in more about these health care reform charts, see this Ignite presentation I did entitled Chart Wars:

  • Please post a chart representing the same data clearly when criticizing another chart. I am not on either political side, but what I heard from your posting was “this chart was made by republicans and is bad because it’s complex.” That may be true, but if you are to criticize this chart, please post another chart that is much simpler as implied in your post should be. Otherwise, this post just appears as political rhetoric from the other side of the aisle. Saying “this is bad and overly complex” without evidence to support such claims is why politics have divided this country. “The other side is wrong” without showing why polarizes but doesn’t clarify.

    I follow this blog for informational clarity, something clearly absent in what appears to be a guised ranting.

  • Gerard St. Croix July 30, 2010 at 1:19 am


    not only do I agree with your factual objections here, but your linked presentation was outstanding as well. Kudos.

  • This is one of the best attempts of FUD I’ve ever seen. I’m impressed.

  • Typical leftoid response. Please show us what it SHOULD look like. If you can’t than please stop posting such nonsense.