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


Jaime Calayo, Edmontonian Graphical Archivist

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Edmonton Journal carried a story about a graphic designer (the titular Jaime Calayo) who’d discovered a thick vein of paying gig beneath sedimentary layers of civic sentiment. He’s been commissioned to create a  set (or is it a “system?”) of “minimalist crest[s]” to represent each of Edmonton’s 300 plus communities. He’s about halfway done, and the results are quite interesting already. Click the image below to view it at a reasonable size.

Edmonton Community League Crest Designs by Jaime Calayo. Edmonton Journal, Jan 12 2014.
Edmonton Community League Crest Designs by Jaime Calayo. Edmonton Journal, Jan 12 2014.

Otiena Ellwand, who wrote the article for the Journal to which I allude, makes this massive undertaking look like a pretty sweet gig: dude cruises around town trying to get the “feel” for a neighbourhood, then sits down (with a nice hot cup of tea, I like to imagine) and spends a couple of hours figuring a way to render the place in a little circle with one  colour and not too many lines.

An important career aspect to this project, whether Mr. Calayo intended it to be or not, is his reported call to the public for “feedback on how he can make the crests more accurate” (Ellwand). Now, speaking as a person who generally enjoys sitting down for a couple of hours to scratch the chin and draw stuff, this strikes me as just a little counter-intuitive, but I recognize the genius of it from a marketing perspective. I mean, if somebody came to me and said, “this thing you spent hours making is not accurate,” my first reaction is likely to come from a dark place, mentally, where I keep an armory of pointed barbs for precisely such occasions. “You wouldn’t have the opportunity to impose your uninformed opinion of it were it not for the fact that it *is* accurate, and that’s why it’s finished and appearing in your field of vision now, and don’t let the door knob hit you in the small of the back goodbye” is how I commonly react to after-it’s-done criticism, and I fear I’m not alone in this regard.

But that’s not good marketing. Conversely, Mr. Calayo will, by throwing his hard work open to the great unwashed masses to critique, generate a list of marketing contacts quite precious to a person trying to make a living in Graphic Design. The many you-missed-a-spot comments he receives will be of negligible utility to the development of the design at issue, but the many addresses of persons who think themselves graphically aware but not so much that they’d like to be paid for their opinions may prove invaluable to the development of the career of the designer.

These people are confident that they know what they like, and unsure why they like it. Often, P.T. Barnum spoke unkindly of them, but these are the rubes who make the circus run, and I say God bless them, every one.

Later this week: like a plague of locust, Kress & vanLeeuwen will descend upon some of Mr. Calayo’s crests with the analytical rigor of a million curious grasshoppers.

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.