20 August 2009

Is there anything new to say about graphs?

For a blog about poster presentations, a medium that is most associated with scientific and technical discourse, I haven’t written much about the element that most researchers consider to be the heart of their poster, the data.

The reason for that is most data are presented as graphs, and it’s very hard to find anything substantive to say about graphs that Edward Tufte hasn’t said already. Tufte has written four rightfully famous books about graphs, and for any researcher doing technical data displays, they are must reads. These four books are:

  • The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

  • Envisioning Information

  • Visual Explanations

  • Beautiful Evidence

These books are not without flaw (I reviewed Beautiful Evidence at my other blog, NeuroDojo, here), but they provide an invaluable starting point for thinking about graphs, charts, and related visuals. And Tufte is, of course, not the only person who has written on the creation of technical graphs. While I may not be able to say more, I do have some recommendations.

First, replace tables with graphs. Almost any information than can be placed in a table can be shown in a graph. Tables require more reading and interpretation, whereas graphs are more likely to serve as an “entry point” for your audience.

Second, make graphs just for your posters. Many people recycle graphics prepared for journals or slides. Figures for journals often have to be printed in black and white, but there is no reason a poster figure should be so limited. Additionally, journal figures can be very detailed, because a reader can examine them at his or her leisure, whereas you may have only a few minutes with a fellow researcher at a poster. Figures for slides are often too low resolution to be enlarged for printing on a poster. Both could be in proportions that are completely inappropriate for the layout of your poster.

Remember, only you can prevent graphs that look like this ending up on your poster!

(Shudder.) Hat tip to Garr Reynolds for drawing attention to that last graph on Twitter.

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