Bling your Graph–Is Swivel Serious?

When I first discovered, I was encouraged that a website was providing a venue for the presenting, discussing, and collaborating around important data, despite its problems. When the folks there responded positively to my recommendations, I was hopeful that the site might evolve into something useful. One of the latest features, which they proudly refer to as the ability to “bling your graph,” however, has put an end to these hopes. What a shame.

Here’s their explanation of the new feature:

In this world of customization, individualization, tricking trucks, pimping rides, and extreme makeovers, we here at Swivel wanted to allow users to further express themselves in their graphs…What does it mean to bling a graph? It means you can add a photo as the background image of your graph. Just click on the Bling button.

Swivel Bling

Swivel has joined the swelling ranks of those who believe that important information can be enhanced by sprucing it up with gratuitous decoration. This might be appropriate for advertising, but it is the death of data. Blinging your graph is to graphical presentation what a lobotomy is to brain function. At least they’ve given this feature a name that accurately describes its purpose. If you want your data to impress those who prefer superficial sparkle to the substance of important information communicated clearly, Swivel is the site for you. There are so many ways that the ability to share data and worthwhile findings could be improved on Swivel. What a travesty that a feature that is not only useless but also undermines the purpose of the site occupied their attention and efforts. If you want to make sense of data and share what you’ve discovered with others, you would do better to try out Many Eyes.

8 Comments on “Bling your Graph–Is Swivel Serious?”

By Brian Mulloy. February 27th, 2007 at 3:18 pm

Hi again, Stephen.

We might be wrong, but we think we are solving a different problem than the one to which you are holding us accountable.

We recently picked up your books and even blogged about them a couple weeks ago

In Information Dashboard Design you pointed out a number of products that added superfluous design elements to graphs and dashboards. We agreed with your takes in that book.

Our goal at Swivel is for folks to rapidly cruise through many graphs seeking new insights. Rapidly cruising through connected data is the original vision Tim Berners-Lee had for the Web: link any unit of information to any other unit of information. One of our challenges in chasing that goal is:

How does a person quickly parse a few hundred graphs and determine which graphs are about weather and not the stock market or terrorism and not baseball? We want folks to quickly generate hypotheses and then pursue those ideas more deeply. The photos act as a mnemonic so folks can quickly parse the type of content they are seeing and still focus on the graph. The execution might be wrong, but we feel our vision and our goals for this are on solid footing.

If you want to see a visualization in splendid isolation then, as you suggest, folks could use other technologies. However, to feel the velocity and data discovery we all expect from clicking around on the Web…that’s Swivel.

Here are other examples of graphs where the image provides a solid mnemonic for the content and also wraps an emotional element around the data–the way a poem can wrap en emotional element around a book about data.

Are average users spending more or less time at Second Life?

Has terrorism increased or decreased since Bush declared war on terrorists?

How do SAT scores relate to race and parents’ education level?

We are still fans of your thoughts on visualization, even if it might not be reciprocated, and we are excited to see where things will end up in the future.

Brian Mulloy
CEO & Cofounder

By Stephen Few. February 27th, 2007 at 3:48 pm


I understand your intention, but your design doesn’t work. Allowing individuals to place their own images in the background of their graphs does not provide a means to scan them quickly to find graphs of particular types. If you want to use an image for grouping graphs of like types, you need to use the same simple image for the entire group. I specify simple images, such as icons, because complex images cannot be quickly scanned. Also, you should never place images in the background of a graph, because it distracts from the data itself.


By Brian Mulloy. February 27th, 2007 at 3:52 pm

You’re going to have to come across the bay and work with us :~)


By Christopher Ahlberg. February 28th, 2007 at 7:58 pm

Brian – Steve’s right. You don’t want to put pictures behind visualizations unless it adds something – like for example a geographic map or control lines, or similar.

To enable the cruising inspection feeling you’re after – which is good intent – certainly you want to allow people to *visually brand* their plots. I don’t Steve is looking to have all plots look indentical to those in his books – on the reverse.

I’d suggest that you rather than focusing on glitzy background pictures enable people to create distinctiveness through layout, fonts, coloring, line thickness, glyph type, etc. A graph in the Economist is distinctly different from one in the WSJ – and they don’t need to put crazy meaningless USAToday background imagery to work to accomplish that.

By Brian Mulloy. March 2nd, 2007 at 4:17 pm

I hear you, Christopher.

Based on the feedback we have gotten from folks like you and Steve, we’re going to work on some other design approaches that allow us to achieve our goals.

However, since we have launched the bling feature we have also gotten some really positive feedback from Swivelers. For example, one of our users created this graph:

If you were passionate about cycling it would be hard to argue that this graph isn’t made more interesting (even if it is made less clear) by the photo.

Thanks for the feedback. We’ll be working on stuff here at the lab.

By Stephen Few. March 2nd, 2007 at 5:25 pm


I think you’ll need to decide if Swivel is a site for exchanging cool photos or a site for sharing and discussing meaningful information. Combining the two reduces the quality of the data and the photo display.

Do you want to encourage people to put their energy into dressing up the data or communicating and discussing its meaning? These two objectives conflict. A seemingly innocent decision such as making it easy for people to place photos in the background of their graphs can redefine the entire nature of your endeavor.

By John. March 8th, 2007 at 11:13 pm

I just thought I’d add another vote of “dismay” in regarding Swivel’s new “feature” of background chart junk. Allowing users to find ways to make their charts unique is a terrific goal, but background images seems one of the worst, most data-obscuring routes to go.

By Robert. November 18th, 2008 at 1:33 pm

I’ve created “blinged” and “un-blinged” versions of 8 samples,
in hopes that when users see the difference, they will realize
how much more clear and easier to use the “un-blinged” version is.

Note that I’m not claiming these are especially “good” graphics.
Rather, these were “bling” designs I found on the web, which I
then created “un-blinged” versions of (trying to only change
the bling-ness of them … not doing a total re-design).

Further improvements could be made by totally re-designing
the graphics and layout, etc.