Why academic conference posters suck

I’ve been to dozens of conference poster sessions, but I struggle to think of a single thing I’ve learned from them. I don’t think I’m alone, considering the antipathy toward academic posters I’ve noticed among colleagues and librarians.

Continue reading “Why academic conference posters suck”

Nick Routley—Infographics and data visualization (Editors BC meeting)

Nick Routley is creative director at Visual Capitalist, a company that uses visual storytelling techniques to bring life to topics in business and investing. He spoke at the February Editors BC meeting about what goes into a good infographic.

Infographics are visual articles: they tell a story with graphics and often involve one or more data visualizations. For the many people who are visual learners, text-heavy storytelling doesn’t meet their needs. Infographics offer stories that are engaging, data driven, shareable, and succinct. Continue reading “Nick Routley—Infographics and data visualization (Editors BC meeting)”

Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!


Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Continue reading “Four levels to accessible communications”

Collapsing the dimensions of communication space

In June, I was lucky enough to attend Information+, a phenomenal data visualization and information design conference at Emily Carr University. One of the keynote speakers was Colin Ware, renowned for his pioneering work on visual thinking and cognitive processing. At the end of Ware’s talk, Yanni Loukissas, assistant professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, asked him: “Don’t we have an ethical obligation to consider people who have colourblindness or stereoblindness in our visualizations?”

Ware responded, “As a designer, I always want to use of all of design space,” suggesting that limiting the palette only to the colours that people with colourblindness can discern, for example, would be too restrictive.

I’ll come back to Ware’s comment in a bit, but first I want to focus on the concept of design space, which refers to the universe of choices—media, typeface, type size, colour, and so on—available to the designer. The metaphor doesn’t tend to be used outside of design, which is a pity, because it’s handy. I’ve found it useful to think of design space as a subset of communication space, which itself is a subset of creation space. Continue reading “Collapsing the dimensions of communication space”

Laura Laing—Spice up your storytelling with statistics (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

Statistics can be intimidating for some people, said Laura Laing, author of Math for Grownups and Math for Writers, but they can also be a great way to tell a story. Laing gave us some tips on how to use statistics effectively and accurately in our writing.

Statistics is the science of collecting and analyzing data, and they can further—or change—your story. Misused stats, however, can mislead readers, so writers and editors need to be aware of where to find and how to use reliable data.

First, look at the sample that your source has used. If you want to generalize the results to a larger population, the sample must be random, and it must be large enough. Laing offered us this rule of thumb: “Most of the time, about 1,000 responses is a large enough sample, unless they’re broken into subgroups. A reliable local sample can be as small as 350 or 450 respondents.”

Collecting the data is not your job. ‘It’s the scientist’s job,” said Laing. “It’s one of the hardest things to do in the whole world.” Analyzing the data may involve descriptive statistics or inferential statistics. Descriptive statistics summarize the data into percentages, averages, or certain types of graphs but doesn’t involve inferences. “They’re a way of clearing things up for the reader, to make things simpler to understand.” Inferential statistics involves drawing conclusions based on the data, and probabilities are usually involved in some way. Like data collection, data interpretation should be left to the scientists. Be aware that “our brains are hard-wired to look for causation,” said Laing. “Be careful about drawing conclusions that may be unfounded.” Correlation does not imply causation.

Graphs can be an efficient way to convey information, but make sure you’re using the right type of graph (for example, pie charts only if the components make up a whole and add to 100%) and that your scales are appropriate. “When we look at graphs, our brain will see the images before we look at the numbers,” said Laing. Different scales on a graph can deceive the eye.

Where do you find reliable statistics? Surveys and polls conducted by reputable companies, big media organizations, universities, research organizations, and government agencies generally have standardized ways to go about research and so generally have trustworthy information. Mapping Scientific Excellence is a good resource if you’re looking for research institutions in particular areas of study.

Some red flags that your source may not be reliable:

  • research sponsored or conducted by candidates, special interest groups and companies with an obvious interest in the outcome
  • researchers who won’t reveal their methodologies
  • research that hasn’t been peer reviewed
  • research more than five years old
  • research refuted by other, highly regarded researchers in the field.

“I’m not a fan of the ‘make sure you have both sides of the debate’ argument because one side may just be dumb,” said Laing. Be careful, too, of what Laing calls the “focus group of one syndrome.” “Anecdotes can add colour,” said Laing, “but they can’t be used to demonstrate causation or even correlation.”

When you write with numbers, give them context and put them into perspective—for example, report a growth or decline, or use a number to show the scope of a problem. Use statistics only if they will mean something to your audience, and consider putting numbers in charts or graphs to make a bigger impression on readers.

Rather than cramming all of the stats in a story together, spread them out by describing or giving context to each number. If you can, let your sources give the numbers in a quote, which is more interesting than citing a number yourself.

Don’t be afraid of rounding, but let your readers know what you’ve done by using words like “approximately,” “about,” or “a little more (or less) than.” For very large or very small numbers, which our brains don’t handle well, use metaphors to make them more tangible, but make sure the metaphor fits the story, and avoid using clichés (e.g., length of x football fields).

Adrienne Montgomerie & Cheryl Stephens—How and what to edit in visuals accompanying text (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

According to Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards, a proficient editor should know how to “ensure that all tables, photos, multimedia, and other visual elements are clear and effectively convey the intended meaning” (Standard C5). But clear and effective how, and by what standard? Veteran editor Adrienne Montgomerie and plain language champion Cheryl Stephens took us through their thoughts on the topic.

Visual are only going to get more important, because research shows that we learn faster and retain more when we see an image, compared with text. Visuals can explain and convey concepts and relationships that would take a long time to explain—for example, cutaway diagrams can effectively convey internal structure. “Text was a fad,” said Montgomerie, only half-joking. “It had a good life, but now we have the means to communicate in other ways.” Visuals are processed in a different part of the brain than text, which is only one of eight ways people communicate and learn. In plain language communications, said Stephens, we should aim to use visuals more than text, although neither should stand alone.

When using visuals, figure out the motivation behind them and the intended audience and message, because different media and styles—photographs, line illustrations, graphs, etc.—have different purposes. Visuals should not be afterthoughts: work closely with designers from the outset and throughout the developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading stages to ensure that together, the text and visuals communicate clearly. Make sure, too, that the typography is appropriate and readable.

Graphics should emphasize and complement your main point. They draw attention, so to readers will interpret what they illustrate as important. For informational documents, such as textbooks, don’t use a visual for decoration just because you have it. Graphics should help you understand text or be understood on its own.

Be conscious of the psychological effect of colour, which signifies that something is important. More generally, be aware of the symbolism or connotations of not only colours (for example, red meaning stop and green meaning go) but also icons, which should be unambiguous in their meaning. Icons can be misleading if they run counter to culturally accepted meanings. Use familiar approaches if you can, and if you can’t, justify your choices.

Titles and captions should make a claim that your visual proves, so make sure the image accurately reflects the data. Keep the target audience’s level of knowledge in mind when including and captioning an image. A captioned image should ideally stand on its own. Montgomerie has posted a checklist of what to look for when editing captions. They and Stephens suggest using an active verb in the caption.

Finally, Montgomerie repeated what is one of my own mantras: always proof in the final medium.

Montgomerie and Stephens recommend consulting Editing by Design by Jan White for more information about the effects of different ways to combine images and text. If you’re interested in learning more about charts, read my summary of Laurel Hyatt’s presentation (“The chart clinic”) at the 2013 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. For more in-depth information about data visualization, a good place to start is Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, which I reviewed a few years ago.


UPDATE (June 17, 2015): Adrienne Montgomerie has posted their own summary and comprehensive checklists for the substance, style, and quality of visual elements.

Time to leave academic writing to communications experts?

In the Lancet’s 2014 series about preventing waste in biomedical research, Paul Glasziou et al. pointed to “poorly written text” as a major reason a staggering 50% of biomedical reports are unusable [1], effectively squandering the research behind them. According to psycholinguist Steven Pinker [2], bad academic writing persists partly because there aren’t many incentives for scholars to change their ways:

Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it. While no academic would confess to shoddy methodology or slapdash reading, many are blasé about their incompetence at writing.

He adds:

Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

The problem of impenetrable academese is undeniable. How do we fix it?

In “Writing Intelligible English Prose for Biomedical Journals,” John Ludbrook proposes seven strategies [3]:

  • greater emphasis on good writing by students in schools and by university schools,
  • making use of university service courses and workshops on writing plain and scientific English,
  • consulting books on science writing,
  • one-on-one mentoring,
  • using “scientific” measures to reveal lexical poverty (i.e., readability metrics),
  • making use of freelance science editors, and
  • encouraging the editors of biomedical journals to pay more attention to the problem.

Many institutions have implemented at least some of these strategies. For instance, SFU’s graduate student orientation in summer 2014 introduced incoming students to the library’s writing facilitators and open writing commons. And at UBC, Eric Jandciu, strategist for teaching and learning initiatives in the Faculty of Science, has developed communication courses and resources specifically for science students, training them early in their careers “to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science.” [4]

Although improving scholars’ writing is a fine enough goal, the growth in the past fifteen years of research interdisciplinarity [5], where experts from different fields contribute their strengths to a project, has me wondering whether we would be more productive if we took the responsibility of writing entirely away from researchers. Rather than forcing academics to hone a weak skill, maybe we’d be better off bringing in communications professionals whose writing is already sharp.

This model is already a reality in several ways (though not all of them aboveboard):

  • Many journals encourage authors to have their papers professionally edited before submission [6]. From personal experience, I can confirm that this “editing” can involve heavy rewriting.
  • The pharmaceutical industry has long used ghostwriters to craft journal articles on a researcher’s behalf, turning biomedical journals into marketing vehicles [7]. We could avoid the ethical problems this arrangement poses—including plagiarism and conflict of interest—with a more transparent process that reveals a writer’s identity and affiliations.
  • Funding bodies such as CIHR have begun emphasizing the importance of integrated knowledge translation (KT) [8], to ensure knowledge users have timely access to research findings. Although much of KT focuses on disseminating research knowledge to stakeholders outside of academia, including patients, practitioners, and policy makers, reaching fellow researchers is also an important objective.

To ensure high-quality publications, Glasziou et al. suggest the following:

Many research institutions already employ grants officers to increase research input, but few employ a publication officer to improve research outputs, including attention to publication ethics and research integrity, use of reporting guidelines, and development of different publication models such as open access. Ethics committees and publication officers could also help to ensure that all research methods and results are completely and transparently reported and published.

Such a publication officer would effectively serve as an in-house editor and production manager. Another possibility is for each group or department to hire an in-house technical communicator. Technical communicators are trained in interviewing subject matter experts and using that information to draft documents for diverse audiences. In the age of big data, one could also make a convincing case for hiring a person who specializes in data visualization to create images and animations that complement the text.

That said, liberating scientists from writing should not absolve them of the responsibility of learning how to communicate. At a minimum, they would still need to understand the publication process enough to effectively convey their ideas to the writers.

Separating out the communication function within research would also raise questions about whether we should also abolish the research–teaching–service paradigm on which academic tenure is based. If we leave the writing to strong writers, perhaps only strong teachers should teach and only strong administrators should administrate.

Universities’ increasing dependence on sessional and adjunct faculty is a hint that this fragmentation is already happening [9], though in a way that reinforces institutional hierarchies and keeps these contract workers from being fairly compensated. If these institutions continue to define ever more specialized roles, whether for dedicated instructors, publication officers, or research communicators, they’ll have to reconsider how best to acknowledge these experts’ contributions so that they feel their skills are appropriately valued.


[1] Paul Glasziou et al., “Reducing Waste from Incomplete or Unusable Reports of Biomedical Research,” Lancet 383, no. 9913 (January 18, 2014): 267–76, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62228-X.

[2] Steven Pinker, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Academics-Writing-Stinks/148989/

[3] John Ludbrook, “Writing Intelligible English Prose for Biomedical Journals,” Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology & Physiology 34, no. 5–6 (January ): 508–14, doi:10.1111/j.1440-1681.2007.04603.x.

[4] Iva Cheung, “Communication Convergence 2014,” Iva Cheung [blog], October 8, 2014, https://ivacheung.com/2014/10/communication-convergence-2014/.

[5] B.C. Choi and A.W. Pak, “Multidisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity, and Transdisciplinarity in Health Research, Services, Education and Policy: 1. definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness. Clinical and Investigative Medicine 29 (2006): 351–64.

[6] “Author FAQs,” Wiley Open Access, http://www.wileyopenaccess.com/details/content/12f25e4f1aa/Author-FAQs.html.

[7] Katie Moisse, “Ghostbusters: Authors of a New Study Propose a Strict Ban on Medical Ghostwriting,” Scientific American, February 4, 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ghostwriter-science-industry/.

[8] “Guide to Knowledge Translation Planning at CIHR: Integrated and End-of-Grant Approaches,” Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Modified June 12, 2012, http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/45321.html.

[9] “Most University Undergrads Now Taught by Poorly Paid Part-Timers,” CBC.ca, September 7, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/most-university-undergrads-now-taught-by-poorly-paid-part-timers-1.2756024.


This post was adapted from a paper I wrote for one of my courses. I don’t necessarily believe that a technical communication–type workflow is the way to go, but the object of the assignment was to explore a few “what-if” situations, and I thought this topic was close enough to editing and publishing to share here.

Book review: Supercommunicator: Explaining the Complicated So Anyone Can Understand

supercommunicator_1Frank J. Pietrucha is a communications specialist whose company, Definitive Communications, specializes in making highly technical topics accessible and meaningful to different audiences. It counts among its clients the International Intellectual Property Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Pietrucha’s book, Supercommunicator, was published by AMACOM, the book-publishing division of the American Management Association, and I was curious to see whether his advice to managers would jibe with the clear communication principles that plain language specialists are familiar with.

It does, for the most part, and Pietrucha is clear about the motivation for his book: “Every day great ideas fall by the wayside because they weren’t properly explained. To be successful in an increasingly competitive marketplace, you need to articulate a clear and easy-to-understand message to all relevant parties. Financiers, management, stockholders, board members, regulators, clients, analysts, and employees all demand clarity from you—and these days, business people don’t have the interest or patience to wade through ineffective communications.” (p. 5)

Pietrucha practises what he preaches, offering readers short, digestible chunks of information and advice in a conversational tone. The 230 pages of text are divided into nine parts—including “How digital technology is changing communication,” “Know thy audience,” and “Simplicity and clarity”—each with one to six brief chapters, so the book is a quick, unintimidating read. There’s a lot to like in this book:

It looks at more than one way to deliver a message

Pietrucha tackles not only written communication but also offers advice about how to give effective presentations. The goal of communicating in whatever form, he says, is not simply to give your audience information but to bring them meaning. Those of us who work in editing or in plain language likely focus a disproportionate amount of our energy on achieving comprehension and could learn a thing or two about how best to achieve persuasion; Supercommunicator deftly bridges that divide with solid tips about how to get your audience to care, by using storytelling, examples, and analogies to anchor the new information to their own experiences.

Throughout the book Pietrucha also highlights the importance of getting comfortable with digital media, which can offer new ways of reaching people, from videos that enhance a text to interactive infographics and data visualizations. He supports his advice with research from authoritative sources, including developmental molecular biologist John Medina, who, in establishing that “vision is our most dominant sense,” (p. 193) argues for the primacy of images over text, as well as Finnish researchers Kristian Kiili and Harri Ketamo, who have found that “Most game-based learning today is being done without significant pedagogical input… Players aren’t usually allowed to actively test their hypotheses and discovery new knowledge with what’s currently available.” (p. 224)

The latter example shows the importance of tempering enthusiasm about new communication technologies with sound judgment. Pietrucha writes, “Caught up in the gee-whiz excitement about digital tools, many of us forgot that good communication means bringing insight to an audience, not glitz. The widespread availability of graphics programs has opened a Pandora’s Box of visual stimuli, but much of what’s in there has been meaningless adornment.” (p. 205)

In short, become familiar with what technology can offer, but use it with care.

Supercommunicator advocates for an understanding of, and compassion for, your audience

Plain language folks know that audience is paramount, and Pietrucha is unequivocal about the importance learning as much as you can about what your audience does and doesn’t know when planning your communications:

Research is essential to understand your audience’s level of cultural awareness. The Internet has made the world a smaller place by making it easier for people to connect. This is great—but it also means we need to consider that not everyone who will view our web pages or see our videos will comprehend certain references. There are cultural traits we need to think about if our audience comes from a different part of the country or different country altogether. In the digital age, communicators need to be more sensitive to the fact that their audiences may approach their content from a completely different viewpoint. (pp. 72–73)

The onus, emphasizes Pietrucha throughout the book, is on the sender, not the receiver, to ensure the message gets through.

The book gives guidelines, not rules

As much as our jobs would be easier if we adhered to a black-and-white set of rules, effective communicators need to be flexible and exercise judgement. Writes Pietrucha:

Ideally, most of my suggestions would be embraced by a world ready to communicate complicated content more effectively. But in actuality, some organizations cling to the formality and stilted ways of yesteryears. Your judgment is necessary to determine the applicability of content in this book to your situation. It may be worthwhile for you to be a maverick and forge a new communication style for your company—yet, if you go too far it could mean professional trouble. (p. 6)

In some academic circles, for example, you may have to stick with third-person pronouns and the passive voice to have your communications taken seriously. Fortunately, even in academia the tide may be turning, according to Pietrucha:

Penn State University Professor Joe Schall did an informal survey of forty journals pulled from his university’s technical library to see if the authors of serious academic articles dared tread into the less formal territory of first person. He checked a range of less-than-blockbuster journals such as European Journal of Mineralogy, Spray Technology and Marketing, and Water Resources Journal and came up with some surprising results. He discovered that in thirty-two of the forty journals he surveyed, the authors “made liberal use of ‘I’ and ‘we’.” Schall concludes that the principle of third-person-only is either outdated or is in flux. (pp. 153–154)

Other “rules,” such as using short words and short sentences, can make for monotonous reading if unthinkingly applied. Judiciously bending or breaking those rules adds colour to communications and helps keeps audiences engaged.

The author is eminently quotable

For me, reading this book was a bit like being at a pep rally. Although most of the information wasn’t new to me, I still found myself nodding in agreement and busily transcribing passage after passage for quoting. Sometimes, in crafting an argument, you just need a pithy quote from a supportive source, and I’ll have Supercommunicator in my back pocket for just those occasions. I won’t overwhelm you with the 3,900 words I took down, but here are a few I’ll probably find some forum repeat:

Nothing kills good ideas like poorly written text. You could have found the cure for cancer or an alternative power source, but if you can’t articulate your concept clearly and intelligibly, you’re going to have a much harder time getting people to believe your claim. (p. 102)

In our rush to get more information quickly, we have less tolerance for roadblocks that prevent us from getting to the meat of the matter. “Don’t slow me down with big vocabulary words,” or “Don’t use jargon that only geeks can understand,” is the prevalent feeling among today’s digital citizens. (p. 102)

Elaborate words are ineffective if your audience is thinking more about your vocabulary than what you have to say. (p. 112)

Jargon makes people feel excluded. Communicating the complicated is about inclusivity, not exclusivity. (p. 112–113)


Supercommunicator is a quick, affirming read for the plain language specialist, but it could have been much stronger in a few important ways:

Whither the editor?

Pietrucha acknowledges that today’s multimedia communications can be complex affairs that take teams of people—including data visualization specialists, graphic designers, and programmers—to put together. The author even writes:

Make it error free

This is basic communication 101. Errors turn people off. Even if you are a neuroscience genius, you can’t expect your audience to appreciate your thoughts if they’re presented with error-filled content. Errors can destroy your credibility, no matter how smart you are. Use your spell and grammar check programs, but look out for other problems your personal computer may not catch. Work with a colleague to help you clean up your act. (p. 117)

As an editor, I’m always attuned to opportunities to promote the profession, and, consciously or not, Pietrucha missed a big one here. Why “work with a colleague” when professional language specialists can help you polish your text to high standards? Communications teams should always include an editor.

How do you know your communications work?

Although Supercommunicator devotes a section to getting to know your audience, it doesn’t mention user testing and revision as vital components of the clear communication process. It’s misleading to suggest—and naive to believe—that once you’ve done your audience research your communications will automatically be effective.

In a similar vein, learning from your mistakes and refining your communications are implied in the book but not made as explicit as they should be. Becoming an excellent communicator takes practice, and what I think would make this book more useful as a reference is a companion volume that features more before-and-after examples, as well as exercises to hone the communication skills that the book endorses.

Don’t neglect the index!

Nothing kills the potential for a book to become a time-tested reference like a weak index. Whether because of budget, time, or space constraints, this book’s index doesn’t do justice to its contents and will make it harder for a reader to look up specific topics. (Why isn’t there a cross-reference between “infographics” and “graphics”? And why isn’t “respect for audience” double-posted under “audience”?)

No, this book isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have stretched its usefulness and probably increased its readership if it had not only a better index but also more consistently structured chapters. As it stands, the chapters aren’t even organized in a similar way within each major part, which makes it harder for a reader to navigate the book and find the information they need.


Supercommunicator is a great primer or refresher—and I don’t hesitate to recommend it—but a lack of rigour in its organization and shortcomings in its index prevent it from being the indispensable reference it could be. Will it help you become a more effective writer and presenter? Possibly—but certainly not without practice.

Laurel Hyatt—The chart clinic (EAC conference 2013)

Laurel Hyatt gave us a quick tour of the system she uses to diagnose and treat ailing charts. Taking the medical metaphor further, she said that at the substantive editing stage, the goal is prevention; at the copy-editing stage, the goal is successful treatment; and at the proofreading stage, sometimes all we can do is try to keep the chart alive. The earlier you can intervene when you spot a poor chart, the better.

Charts are the trifecta of communication: numbers, words, and pictures. When they come together in harmony, said Hyatt, they can be a beautiful thing. If one or more of those elements goes wrong, the chart can be a dog’s breakfast.

Charts should tell a story. Hyatt showed us examples functional and dysfunctional charts in each of four of the most popular types of charts. Here is just a sample of her advice:

Bar charts


  • make the y-axis begin at 0. Doing otherwise could exaggerate the difference between two bars and be misleading.
  • show scales (such as years) in even increments.


  • use more than about ten bars per chart.
  • use more precision in number labels than necessary.

If you have too little data, consider using text instead. If there’s too much data, try a table. Even-year time series may work better as a line chart, and parts of a whole that add up to 100% may work better as a pie chart.

Line charts


  • use a scale that clearly shows changes over time (or whatever you’re measuring on the x-axis).
  • use even increments of time (or whatever you’re measuring on the x-axis)


  • use too many lines. Even with a legend, crowded lines will be confusing and hard to interpret.

When you have uneven increments of time, a bar chart might be a better choice; if you have too many lines, a bar chart or table might be more appropriate. If the data don’t change enough over time, consider using text.

Pie charts

Data visualization specialists like Edward Tufte dislike pie charts, but Hyatt believes that they can serve a function when the aim isn’t to do any precision comparisons.


  • use pie charts to show parts of a whole.


  • use fewer than three or more than about six slices.
  • use more than one pie to compare apples and oranges.
  • use slices that represent 0%.

If you have too many slices, or the slices are too thin, a bar chart or table might work better. If there are only two slices, summarize the data as text. Changes in time are better compared using a line chart rather than separate pie charts.


We don’t come across too many pictographs in our work, but they can be very effective when done creatively. You can suggest using them at the developmental and substantive editing stages if you think they work well to get the message across.


  • use proportionate size to indicate data.


  • use a pictograph just because it looks cool.
  • use three-dimensional objects to represent anything other than volume.

Too often, said Hyatt, when there’s geographically sensitive data, people default to using some kind of map, but maps are not always the most effective choices, especially if you’re expected to compare data between locations. Opt for other types of charts, tables, or text if the data you’re representing is very technical or if it has to be shown precisely.

Further resources

Introduction to information graphics and data visualization

Alberto Cairo, author of The Functional Art, found my review of his book and wrote me a very gracious note to let me know about an online course he’s teaching about infographics and data visualization. The first offering of the six-week course began October 28 and saw an enrolment of 2,000 students; a second offering is scheduled for January 2013. It’s completely free, and you can register here.

Cairo tells me that although he designed the course with journalists in mind, the diversity of backgrounds among his current students is huge, from epidemiology to statistics to cartography—as well as journalism.

The course, he says, will help fill in the gaps I identified in The Functional Art—namely, the details of how to put the theory he presents into practice. Further, he’s at work on another book that focuses more on that aspect of information visualization. If it’s as cogent and clear as The Functional Art, it will be a valuable reference indeed.