Although charts and tables have a reputation for providing the most accurate representations of data, I think data visualizations have a lot to offer. Tufte warns us of the many all-to-easy ways we can go wrong and commit graphical fraud, which seems to be an especially easy trap to fall into when using data visualizations. There is definitely a standard that needs to be met in order for me to feel trusting of a graphic, but that stands true for any table or chart as well. Take this graphic for instance:
I pulled this image from a website called visual.ly, which invites anyone to use their tools to create their own data visualizations. The website intrigued me because I thought it might show how people who may not be as well-versed in data representations as Tufte or Booth go about creating graphics, and to what extent they apply Tufte’s ideas of “graphical integrity.”
At first glance, this image struck me as amusing. After a little consideration, I thought it was creative more than anything else. I commend the author of this graphic for making his/her numerical and descriptive data about alcohol into a “science” by formatting it as the periodic table, presenting me the facts of the data in an interesting and fun way while still, for the most part, encouraging me to take it seriously.
What strikes me most, however, is the ease at which the exact same information could be put into a table (what we might think of as a “normal” table, at least, being as it’s already in a periodic table). The data – including the percent of alcohol in each drink, the flavor, and year of creation – is not skewed, as far as I can tell, by the manner in which it is presented, which is exactly what Tufte warns against. I considered that “The Periodic Table of Alcohol” might be implying some sort of hierarchy within the drinks that isn’t meant to be there, but what I found was that there WAS a hierarchy that was implied and it WAS meant to be there. Just as the Periodic Table of Elements is arranged within different groups according to atomic mass (don’t blame me if I’m wrong – science isn’t my forte), so too is this parody of the Periodic Table arranged within groups (Vodka, Beer, Wine…) according to alcohol content. So, while a little basic knowledge of the Periodic Table of Elements is helpful in understanding the format of this table, it isn’t mandatory.
All in all, I think this particular data visualization is committing none of the sins written about by Tufte. If anything, it is using graphic design to organize information in an intriguing way that follows a pattern of arrangement that wouldn’t have the same effect in any regular table. It is all of the fun design, accurate data, and clarity without any of the distortion.