What Is Chartjunk? [Visual Imagination #2]

Recently I wrote a wiki page listing all the benefits of installing Internet access in LDS meetinghouses. After I published my list, I realized the page was text heavy — so much that it looked uninviting and intimidating, even though the content itself was good. You can view the avalanche of text here.

I like to think that text lays the foundation for graphics that will later follow. After all, you can’t create a graphic without knowing what you want to say.

But now that the foundation is laid, I find myself wondering how to bring more appeal to the page through visuals and illustrations. I want to add visuals, but I don’t want the visuals to be meaningless imagery that only serves to balance out the text.

Edward Tufte and Information Design

This dilemma brings me to Edward Tufte. In one of Tufte’s classics on information design, Envisioning Information, he explores various principles of information design and how they play out in charts, graphs, and other illustrations across cultures and time. Early on in the book (the book is beautiful, by the way — something you’d want on a coffee table in your living room), Tufte comes down hard on “chartjunk.” He shows the following illustration:

An example of chartjunk from Tufte's book on Designing Information

An example of chartjunk from Tufte's book on Envisioning Information

He then says,

Consider this unsavory exhibit at right–chockablock with cliché and stereotype, coarse humor, and a content-empty third dimension. It is the product of a visual sensitivity in which a thigh-graph with a fishnet-stocking grid counts as a Creative Concept. Everything counts, but nothing matters. The data-thin (and thus uncontextual) chart mixes up changes in the value of money with changes in diamond prices, a critical confusion because the graph chronicles a time of high inflation.

Lurking behind chartjunk is contempt both for information and for the audience. Chartjunk promoters imagine that numbers and details are boring, dull, and tedious, requiring ornament to enliven. Cosmetic decoration, which frequently distorts the data, will never salvage an underlying lack of content. If the numbers are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers. Credibility vanishes in clouds of chartjunk; who would trust a chart that looks like a video game?

…. No matter what, the operating moral premise of information design should be that our readers are alert and caring; they may be busy, eager to get on with it, but they are not stupid. Clarity and simplicity are completely opposite simple-mindedness. Disrespect for the audience will leak through, damaging communication. What E.B. White said of writing is equally true for information design: “No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing. (Designing Information, pages 34-35).

In other words, chartjunk is superfluous visual imagery that serves no purpose in clarifying and displaying information. It is visual imagery for the sake of having some images, not for the sake of information visualization. Rather than clarify information, chartjunk competes with information and distracts the user with irrelevance. The irrelevance may even suggest the wrong ideas or inaccurate connotations.

I love Tufte’s diatribe against chartjunk because it clarifies what information design is all about. You don’t add illustrations to text just to give the reader a pretty picture. You show images to reinforce meaning. The visuals provide a framework for clarifying and displaying information that would otherwise be confusing.

Is the Standard Too High?

Let’s return to the avalanche of text I mentioned earlier. The text covers 25 reasons to install Internet in a church, but my information isn’t quantitative data or statistics. I could add pictures of meetinghouses and people acting in the various roles that I discuss, such as clerks and secretaries. But what purpose would these visuals serve, beyond merely breaking up the text with a picture to look at?

For example, I could add a picture of a man in a suit sitting in an office typing on a computer. That’s the kind of image you’re likely to see for this content — pictures that somewhat fit the topic but fail to communicate any idea strongly. For example, here’s one such image.

Generic stock images

Generic stock images (from Shutterstock)

I haven’t read enough Tufte to know if this would be in the same class as chartjunk. It’s not a chart or graph; it’s more like poster content. As such, Tufte might not have much to say about it at all. It’s not information design. It is graphic arts, in the realm of posters.

But it seems to violate the kind of utilitarian philosophy with which I interpret Tufte, where all parts of a graphic or design work toward clarifying information. The image fails because these typing hands could belong to any Internet or workplace related content, and so it becomes generic and unenlightening.

There’s something to be said for breaking up text with images, even if the images are superfluous. Some images inserted on a page of text might serve a formatting purpose: to reduce the mental strain on the user by balancing out text with graphics. But when possible, images should support the main concept of the article and illustrate that concept in a clear way.

A concept diagram differs from other graphics because it illustrates a specific idea; it’s not just a vague image. In the case of my meetinghouse Internet article, the overall concept is that implementing Internet in a church building can improve the experience of just about every member and leader in a multitude of ways. There are 25 separate uses, not just one or two.

A clever concept diagram could work, but would tend to become too targeted to a specific reason and not all 25. Instead of a concept diagram, an information mural might be a more powerful way to communicate the plurality of benefits. Information murals cover a wide landscape of concepts and scenarios in one overarching scene that shows how each part interacts with the others.

Overall, in selecting visuals to support text, we must be careful of adding an image for the sake of an image alone. Images should work to clarify and support the information we’re presenting.

I’ll talk more about information murals in the next series post.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

15 thoughts on “What Is Chartjunk? [Visual Imagination #2]

  1. Scott B

    I get annoyed at constant use of stock photos just to break up text. They do not contribute, they are not part of design, they are a cheap way to avoid the obvious inadequacies of the writing on the page.

    Graphics are a great way to enliven a page, but they have to be relevant and valuable to be worth a thousand words. For instance, instead of the stock image of the suit typing at a computer, you could use an actual photo of clerks at work in one of the offices you are talking about. While not crucial to the text (and therefore no loss to your readers who get the document without images, such as some mobile users), it would back up the text and provide an interesting visual to help put the text in context.

    I enjoy Michael Hyatt’s blog on publishing and leadership, but his stock images don’t add anything. Most of your images, on the other hand, add value to your text even when they are simple quickly-drawn stick figure illustrations.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Good idea about using real photos. That would be powerful.

      I share your frustration with stock images that don’t add anything. I regularly see this type of thing on blogs in part because some blog templates require images for their layout. Writing the content is hard enough; finding a relevant supporting graphic requires even more time. So it’s understandable, but I think that with a few clever strokes in Illustrator, one can communicate a lot.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Eileen, thanks for pointing me to Jakob Nielsen’s post. I wasn’t aware of it. It’s perfect for my focus on visuals. I love the eye-tracking images. Incredible content there.

      On a side note, as a writer I love it when Nielsen says things like, “18% of the viewing time was spent on the photos, while 82% was spent on the text.” Justifies my existence as a writer and my focus on text more the images, but still points to the importance of using images.

  2. Mel (Melanie)

    Tom, as usual – a very interesting article. This amount of text didn’t bother me as much as it apparently bothered you.

    Forgive me for pointing out that you meant “coarse humor,” not “course humor!”

    I really enjoy your blog and I’ve become a regular reader.


  3. Techquestioner

    Sarah O’Keefe reported on a session by David Keen at the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney, “Six step system to winning documentation using graphics” that discussed this topic (http://ffeathers.wordpress.com/2010/11/01/astc-nsw-day-2-six-step-system-to-winning-documentation-using-graphics). I thought you might find it interesting. The session was filmed, and the attendees were told that it will be downloadable off the web in the near future.

  4. Christine Astle

    Another interesting article. In my opinion, when we techwriters do what we do well, we do information design. And therefore, we need to look critically at those graphics and ask whether or not they have a purpose, do they add value. Or are they fluff. If there are no meaningful graphics to break up text, there are other ways to structure the text to visually break it up, as you’ve done–headings, boldface lead-ins, tables, bullets, etc.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Christine, good point about the formatting techniques available for breaking up the text. Those do make a huge difference. Initially my avalanche of text example lacked any subheadings. Then someone added them, and it made a huge difference.

  5. Patty Blount

    Love this topic; we often argue over the merits of screen shots in our doc.

    In this case, I think the graphic is nothing more than clipart, even though it’s of photographic quality.

    I know visual information provides interest, catches the eye (and attention) of our readers, but I see no reason to inflate page counts with a screen shot in each step of a procedure. I’d rather see a flow chart, a diagram, a process graphic… instead of a gratuitous screen shot.

    Learning to communicate visually is a skill whose importance cannot be overstated. I’m reminded of Tufte’s tirade on Powerpoint contributing to the Challenger disaster…

  6. Irene Wong

    I was one of the speakers at the conference mentioned in a previous comment here.

    In my session on communicating numbers I briefly touched on this subject. The following paper is the only research I have seen about this. I found a free pdf version of it but I can’t remember where.

    (Another possible reference is listed at the end of this comment.)
    “Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellishment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts” by
    Scott Bateman, Regan L. Mandryk, Carl Gutwin, Aaron Genest, David McDine, Christopher Brooks
    Department of Computer Science, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

    I have not seen the following reference but understand there *may be* something at page 31 of the following book:
    Spence I and Lewandowsky S 1990, “Graphical
    Perception”, J Fox and S Long (eds) Modern Methods of
    Data Analysis, Sage Publications, Newbury Park:

  7. Gary Franceschini

    Two words: Stephen Few

    What you say, Tom, dovetails nicely with his attack on “pretty dashboards” where delusions of style overwhelm substance.

    All this is a bit of a raw nerve – I’ve heard the “make it pretty” mantra twice in the past week with regards to both some tech writing and dashboard design. My immediate comeback is “what do you need to see or read?” and folks generally come back to earth – but there’s always one person who is sure some graphic elements or fancy colors will help.

    In the words of a former boss when shown something he didn’t like:

    “My eyes. MY EYES!”

  8. Robert Hempsall - Information Designer

    I’m a bit late to the party on this post, but agree with everything you say. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that there are some occasions when using text is a better solution than using graphics.

    I’d take slight issue with your point that ‘I like to think that text lays the foundation for graphics that will later follow’. Well designed information graphics should be able to stand on their own, but too often they need labelling up and explaining which defeats the point of taking a graphic approach. In these instances, words can often make the point more efficiently, it’s just they’re not as attractive.


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