Visualising truth and lies

Information designers have a particular responsibility when creating the visual representations of data, which place an interpretation on perceived facts and truths. My colleague, Teal Triggs, recently suggested that ‘all information is propaganda’. The design and mediation of information is also subject to bias. We can’t assume that the picture we are being presented with is ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.

Diagrams, charts and graphs
In the book ‘Diagram: The instrument of Thought’, Keith Albarn and Jenny Mial Smith state that, ‘the diagram can represent at a glance what a verbal description can only present in a sequence of statements. It is the ideal mode for describing relations between things’. When presented with statistics it is the role of the information designer to determine the most appropriate form of representation. The three main graph or chart categories are line, bar and pie. The designer should test the efficiency of the graph. By transposing the two axes of a graph a different picture may emerge. Limitations of space may require a reassessment of the graph type or orientation.

Statistical enlightenment
The designer and educator, Kenneth J Hiebert has written perceptively about statistical information in his book, ‘Graphic Design Sources’. ‘Although all design is based on information, working with statistical information presents special challenges. For one thing, many people find statistics eminently boring. They resent the idea that things, attitudes, points of view, and choices can be reduced to numbers. They view numbers as cold, cerebral, resisting the poetic, and resisting depth of experience. Yet there is more to numerical relationships than this. They are the basis of many religious mysteries and are often assigned emotional qualities. Numerical relationships underlie music. When rightly conveyed, statistical information places data in a context that truly enlightens’.

Statistical obsession
The idea of statistics and their visual representation shouldn’t be inherently abhorrent. Numbers permeate our daily existence. We have lucky numbers (the national lottery has made millionaires). Time is measured by numbers (seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, etc). Statistics often precipitate a lively debate. We are rather pleased with ourselves when we reel off a set of statistics impressing our friends with our depth of knowledge. They are vital components of television news and documentaries. In short, if we are truthful, we are not merely fascinated by statistics but obsessed by them.

Transcending language
A graph or chart can deliver a complex message immediately in an arresting form that transcends language and it is generally assumed that the use of such a device is to clarify and enhance the information and not to provide stylistic decoration. Diagrams produce a picture or shape of an overall trend. They do not necessarily convey detailed information, a table does this better but is not as immediate as a graph.

Line Graph
A line graph is composed of a series of X and Y co-ordinates linked by a line plotted within horizontal and vertical axes. There can be one line or many lines within a single graph. Default graphs produced by software often require modification by the designer. They are as much a component of the overall design as a carefully cropped photograph or styled text. Consider the visual language of the graph. Are the tick marks always necessary? Do the data marks on the line need to be so heavily signposted?

Bar Chart
A bar chart is a series of bars measuring a variety of heights (or widths). These bars can be proportioned to different widths although within the same graph they should remain a uniform thickness. Bars can be compared by overlapping them. They can be different colours; appear to be three-dimensional; and orientated vertically or horizontally. Again the designer should question the initial default graph style. Do the bars have to so thick? Do the bars stand shoulder to shoulder or do you introduce space between them?

Pie Chart
A pie chart is a circle divided into segments. Imagine cutting a cake into different size slices. They can be different colours and coded into a key or labelled with a line pointing at each segment. They can remain in a circle; be pulled apart separately; or dimensionalised.

Chart distortions
Distorting either the X or Y axis can dramatically alter how information is visually presented. If a line graph is compressed horizontally the distances between the co-ordinates will reduce so that the lines connecting them will appear to be much more acute in their troughs and peaks. Changing the vertical axis to run from 90-100 instead of 0-100 will make the line of the graph more extreme in its shape (see example below). Statistics can be made to look more turbulent or stable depending on the level of distortion.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
The author Mark Twain is attributed with having said that ‘there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics’. In his book ‘How to Lie With Statistics’ Darrell Huff warns of a ‘terror in numbers’. His book is a wake-up call to all those who have a blind acceptance of statistics. Huff further cautions us against our unquestioning faith in data. ‘The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalise, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify’. People have become sceptical concerning statistics. There is a feeling that argument and counter argument can be sustained by data. Spin is political jargon for affecting the truth and attempts to give a favourable interpretation of information to the media. Documents are ‘sexed-up’ with compelling facts and figures all purporting to be versions of the truth. In the political satire ‘The Thick of It’, a politician replies to the accusation he has lied by stating ‘I believe it was Derrida who said there is no such thing as universal truth’. This clip from the film ‘In the Loop’ shows Malcolm Tucker attempting to manage the flow of information.

The same information can be dressed up to appear differently. Which sounds better 75% customer satisfaction or 25% dissatisfied customers? 8.3% of disciples betrayed Jesus. Judas Iscariot was the individual out of twelve disciples that betrayed Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t lied to you – I’ve altered your perception of the truth. Next time you are presented with information look a little closer. The next time you as a designer are asked to present information think through the consequences of your actions.

How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff
Graphis Diagram 1&2, Martin Pedersen
Graphic Design Sources, Kenneth J Hiebert
Diagram: The instrument of Thought, Keith Albarn and Jenny Mial Smith