Charting without prejudice: is it even possible?

As if it ain’t hard enough to slog through a wet, cold & gritty Canadian early Spring, Maclean’s Magazine published Cary Wu and Rima Wilkes’ article, “The stats bear it out: In Quebec, trust is low” on March 30th of 2017 just to bum us all out even further. Well, that, and to present statistically defensible quantification of Andrew Potter’s incendiary assertion, in an earlier Maclean’s article, that “Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted.”

That’s pretty strong stuff. It remains to be seen what will become of Potter’s career at McGill, but I’m less concerned with the message of the article or its veracity than I am with the graphics that accompanied it initially and, rather conspicuously, the graphics which hastily replaced them. Below, the dreary picture of pathological Francophone hyper-vigilance with which the article was initially published. When asked, “Who do you trust?” Canadians responded:


Note the vertical scale. All of the data is presented in percentiles, of course, but the actual range of each graph varies. Some start at the absolute bottom of 0% and go to 25%, while others pick up halfway and terminate at 75%. The reason, or rather, the reason I’m assuming the graphic artist would cite for laying out the data this way, is to feature the relative difference between the Rest Of Canada (ROC) and Quebec rather than featuring the absolute difference between all or none. While the former is pertinent to the question of comparing Canadians, the latter means defining a scale between…

  1. a hypothetical, idiotically gullible rube who trusts everybody all the time, and
  2. a hypothetical, cripplingly paranoid hermit.

I mean, that’s what “100%” and “0%” would represent on an absolute scale, and such naifs / Tolkienian Gollums are not pertinent to the point the authors want to make. At least, that’s how I’d have made this mistake.

And I would be mistaken because there are in this story characters other (and more important) than the those hypothetical extremes described above. In the graph presented as above, the ROC positively towers over Quebec’s trust-score in all but the “members of family” category. Why, just look at that great, amicable red stripe of mostly English-speaking friendliness dwarfing those tiny, paranoid blue stubs of Quebec. As you might expect, people complained.

Maclean'sGraphTweet(Les Perreaux)
And the magazine reacted. They replaced the relative-scale graph with one which showed the same data in an absolute scale:


Well, that puts things in a different light. Even the printer can see this is a fairer representation just by looking at the ink reservoirs when the job finishes.

What can we learn from this? Was the first chart an attempt to deceive or obfuscate the facts? Edward Tufte sagely observed that “data graphics are no different from words [in so far as] any means of communication can be used to deceive.” Indeed, he cites as an example of such deception a graph using non-zero Y-axis values in Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2001), but he does so because the graph at issue compares quanta from two dissimilar Y-axis starting points (dirty pool!). More to the point, he laments later in the chapter that he finds it “particularly disheartening […] that the reported perception of something as clear and simple as line length depends on the context and what other people have already said about the lines.” Or, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, even the most elemental data visualization is subject to distortion from “that which we don’t know we don’t know.”

So: know. That’s the lesson. Know, or know that if you don’t know, somebody smarter than you will let you know. I don’t believe the graphic designer who produced the initial graph for Maclean’s was “deceptive,” nor intentionally trying to dwarf Quebec with cloying Anglophonic bonhomie. But the fact that the graph had to be replaced shows they did that anyway, which must have been mortifying, and for which they have my deepest sympathies.

But with the article already hot like a hot potato in the world of Canadian letters (having just got Andrew Potter dealt the Spanish Archer* at McGill), the editor should have known that their position just might be read graphically as a bit defensive concerning their accuracy in assessing how trusting are Quebeckers relative to the rest of Canada vs. Quebeckers relative to Tolkein’s Gollum.

If they didn’t, it’s safe to say they do now.

*El Bow


Are you looking at me?

Kress and VanLeeuwen’s excellent Reading Images: the Grammar of Visual Design (2nd Ed, 2006) will be our guide to understanding the photographs in those oddly similarly-formatted messages I blogged about earlier this week.

Are you buying the Kress et al. argument that “the vector … formed by an eyeline, by the direction of the glance of one or more of the represented participants” is a significant, meaning-bearing semiotic indicator (67)? You ought to. Knowing where others are looking and understanding what they see (just by examining the expression on their faces) is a survival skill humans mastered so long ago we’re no longer aware that we do it. That we are instantly and subconsciously aware of who is looking at whom or what is an ancient, mammalian truth and one which designers of visual communications neglect at their peril.

Consider, f’rinstance, this public service announcement intended to encourage Americans to broach the issue of health care while visiting with loved ones over the Christmas break. It has met with what might charitably be called “limited success” from a public relations perspective.

Tweeted from @BarakObama December 17th, 2013; annotations my own.
Tweeted from @BarakObama December 17th, 2013; annotations my own.

The image above shows what Kress et al. call a single Reactor, that is, an agent (like a person or animal that is capable of perceiving the world presented to him/her and then acting upon those perceptions) whose gaze describes a vector terminating, in this case, outside of the frame. Reactors are so called because the important thing about them (for the purpose of this method of analysis) is the reaction that they exhibit to the stimuli they observe. Reactors commonly exist in reaction to (in the lingo of Kress et al.) Phenomena, or agent/objects that receive/cause their reaction (64). Note that, had the Reactor above been looking directly at the camera, the scene would become “infected” by the mechanism of the imaging apparatus; his camera-awareness would change the candid nature of the scene into something more contrived. Nope, this chap’s reaction is to that line of text which is the hero of this assembly: Talk about getting health insurance.

The Reactor, although he appears to be engaged in conversation, is alone in  the image. Kress et al. point out that, when a Reactor’s gaze leads out of the frame, “it is left to the viewer to imagine what he or she is thinking about or looking at,” which can “create a powerful sense of empathy or identification” between the observer and the person depicted (68). What makes this effect work is the fact that the cropping out of the Reactor’s Phenomena is a “source of representational manipulation” in which a “caption … suggests what the Reactor is looking at” (68) which, presumably, is an aunt who has just said that she hasn’t bothered about the Affordable Health Care Act and expects the whole mess will work itself out eventually. Hence the mildly surprised alarm our subject evinces, to be followed, we surmise, by a frank Pajama-Boysplaination.

Plenty of pundits have criticized the thing because of the expression on the young man’s face or his wardrobe, etc.; this, I think, is disingenuous. I fault the cropping-out of the lad’s interlocutor, carrying as it does the implication that “the viewer [ought to have] a powerful sense of empathy or identification” with Pajama Boy (68). In a politics sharply cleaved between left and right (as is the case in the US currently), an image that assumes a powerful empathy can only ever preach to the choir. In the absence of an interlocutor, the viewer (you and I!) become a (half-the-time reluctant) interlocutor.

Contrast that to…

Tweeted from Justin Trudeau January 17th, 2014; annotations my own.
Tweeted from Justin Trudeau January 17th, 2014; annotations my own.

You’re so enjoying the Kress & van Leeuwen method of visual analysis that you can’t wait to apply it to another image, but you must. I’ll speak next about the work of Edmonton graphic designer Jaime Calayo who has taken it upon himself to create a crest to commemorate each of that city’s 300 boroughs. In the meantime, spit on a napkin and press it into a child’s face. They love that.

Pajama boy and the Trudeau lad.

I’m treating a couple of political advertisements this week, one from the Liberal Party of Canada, the other from an organization affiliated with the Democratic government of the United States. It’s not that I’m some kind of Conservative or a Republican (I skew toward chaotic evil / nihilist, actually), but there’s this formal similarity between their tweeted messages which I find positively eerie and would like to explore here.

Tweeted from @JustinTrudeau Jan 17, 2014
Tweeted from @JustinTrudeau Jan 17, 2014

Above, Justin Trudeau puts the touch on some potential donors at a fundraising event. Below, Ethan Krupp (he’s the actor behind the horn rims) sips a hot cocoa and broaches the sensitive subject of health care in America with his loved ones. Let me be clear: I have no problem with either Liberals raising money nor Americans discussing healthcare. But I do wonder from what shared source they both draw their format. And I wonder what significance that shared source has to the political left. And furthermore: WTF, man?

Tweeted by @BarakObama December 17, 2013.
Tweeted from @BarakObama December 17, 2013.

Could this be the source, below? It doesn’t explain the vertical division between image and text, and there’s no horizontal line to bisect the message, but the solid block of colour containing centered san serif text looks familiar. Perhaps there’s a missing link someplace between them. Or maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree altogether, and the progenitor is something other than this. I hope so, frankly, because the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster is a widely recognized, shining example of that fantastically egregious design error we refer to in halting whispers as “Getting The Tone Wrong.”

British propaganda poster produced in 1939, though it appears never to have been posted.

Design historian Susannah Walker* regards the campaign that produced this poster as “a resounding failure,” and reflective of a misjudgement by upper-class civil servants of the mood of the British people. Who but a civil servant, after all, would reason the message depicted above would be a bracer for folks huddled in a subway tunnel while the Hun leveled their homes?

Cementing the thing’s legacy as a massive failure is the fact that, although 800,000 “Keep Calm” posters were printed, few Britishers who lived through the war remember seeing one, and of those who did, none report being at all encouraged. As a public relations campaign (there were two other such slogans) the effort was a perfect failure in the period for which it was produced. In a perhaps telling resurrection, the slogan arranged as above was rediscovered in 2000, widely celebrated and, by 2011, had so utterly saturated the market for war-era Britishisms that it escaped the banks of nostalgia and flooded willy-nilly all over satire, where examples such as this abound:

Keep Calm and what the hell.
Keep Calm and what the hell.

Because, of course, after saturation comes derision, and after that comes rejection and then the long sleep of the sign begins again.

So I am reluctant to believe that the Liberal Party of Canada and the “Organizing for Action” organization (formerly Obama for America)  have each independently adopted for their model one of the worst public service announcement campaigns of the twentieth century. That can’t be right… can it?

Perhaps they noticed the warm reception it received on its second incarnation and were oblivious to the resounding flop it made when first introduced. Or perhaps they reasoned that the condescending tone of the original (sort of a “there, there” from a faceless bureaucrat speaking from a safe distance) was appropriate for potential donors to the Liberal Party and confused American health insurance customers, respectively.

Beats me.

Later this week, we’ll examine the visual grammar of these images. Pass the time until then by hiding under your kitchen table behind a little fort made from the sofa cushions.

*Walker, Susannah (2012). Home Front Posters of the Second World War. Oxford: Shire.

“Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

So spoke Burt Lancaster in the character of Elmer Gantry in the eponymous film of 1960. So too must have reasoned the art director at Sandisk’s thumb drive division when she authorized the graphics for what David Suzuki considers the obscenely over-packaged 32 gb USB fob. Who wants a big, empty fob? Nobody. But who wants a happy, healthy family?

David Suzuki, geneticist-cum-hysterical pundit, pooh-poohs a package.
David Suzuki, geneticist-cum-hysterical pundit, pooh-poohs a package.

Above, the still from last week. Mr. Suzuki’s ire is directed reasonably at an over-packaged gadget. Previously, I’ve treated the excess cardboard; this week, we’ll take a closer look at the picture on it.

A closer look at the filthy thing.
A closer look at the filthy thing.

I regret that I was unable to find a better picture of the offending package, but we can work with this one. The most important word in this graphic occurs in high contrast at the middle of the page, indicating the capacity of the drive and it’s most important index. Well that’s obvious. But the type which scores second is more interesting. At center top of the page is the word “protection,” which, in combination with “speed,” is what the gadget at issue ostensibly does best.

USB keys are especially subject to the analytical eye because the actual products do not vary much from one manufacturer to the next in either substance or price. In a very real way, the “steak” for sale from Sandisk is not much different from the “steak” other manufacturers produce. How best, then, to package the sizzle? Sandisk’s solution was, I suggest, to assemble a family in need of paternal guidance following the death of the father.

Am I going full tilt Freudian all up in here? Yeah, I guess I am. But what the hell, you know? It works.

Consider the levels of separation that relate the “father” figure in this picture to the rest of the image. Separated by a shallow focal depth, a chromatic difference in hair and wardrobe, a spatial distance realized both horizontally and along the depth axis (hence the focal depth marker), Pop’s been relegated to the foggy Elysian fields of elegy, of memory and of death. His ghostly gaze is focused on his living wife and child, whose crisply focused gaze, in turn, is leveled right at us, the observers. Where the husband has been separated, the wife and child are connected through their (almost perfectly) matching hair colour, wardrobe colour, their physical contiguity and parallel gaze at a shared subject–namely you, the observer. They are labeled by that attribute which purports to refer to the product, but extends as much or more to the broken family who surround it. Without the father, mom and daughter need “protection,” and a solid shining shield to the left of the product tells the consumer who has picked up the package (for the print here is small) that this USB thumb drive is the one that will provide the protection they need.

Well, that was morbid. Next week: politics makes strange bedfellows of Justin Trudeau and the Affordable Care Act’s infamous Pajama Boy. Jam your wallet between your teeth and roll on your side lest you swallow your tongue in anticipation.