Hans Rosling of GapMinder is one of my heroes. He has become an engaging and powerful teller of quantitative stories. He’s making a difference in the world. Even the most talented among us, however, sometimes slip up. Rosling’s recent video, produced by BBC Four, takes advantage of technology to place him behind a transparent bubble chart, making it possible for him to direct our attention to particular items with greater ease and clarity, without blocking our view-a worthy goal for statistical narrative. This approach suffers, however, from one significant flaw: in addition to Rosling, an entire room with bright lights, beams, and windows appears in the background as well, resulting in a great deal of distraction.
The production crew could have easily used a clean backdrop for the video, which would have removed all distractions and made it easy to focus on the data and Rosling’s narration. This problem perhaps never occurred to the technicians (although it should have), and I suspect that Rosling had no idea that all those windows and lamps with glaring lights would show up in the finished video. Attention to these details, however, makes the difference between fun and engaging data visualizations that tell stories effectively and those that feature novelty and entertainment over substance. To focus attention on the story, all distractions must be removed. As we venture into new opportunities that technology makes possible, we dare not forget the important lessons of the past. In the years since Edward Tufte began promoting the reduction of non-data ink in visual displays, research has confirmed the importance of this practice due to limitations in human perception, cognition, and memory. We can only focus on a small portion of the visual field at one time, we can only consciously attend to one task at a time, and we can only hold about three chunks of visual information at a time. There is no room for distraction of any kind. Anything that isn’t data must have a good reason to be there or it should be eliminated. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is especially true when telling quantitative stories.