This week’s chart is from an article “The battle of Smoot-Hawley” in The Economist magazine (December 20 2008 – January 2 2009 issue). The Economist is one of the few magazines I read. And it normally has intelligent graphics. But I couldn’t help myself with this one.

Bad Cop

The graph is trying to show world trade declines from 1929 to 1933 (which correspond to a protectionist measure sponsored by congressmen Smoot and Hawley). Normally, a line graph would be exactly the right thing to show such a trend.

economist graph data visualization

The troubling thing here is that it seems they used a radial graph so they could fit a pre-determined title: “Down the plughole”. Yes, it’s amusing but it makes the graph nearly incomprehensible. Why a radial graph other than for the title? I can’t find a good reason. This is the biggest problem by far.

Color choice to depict years is questionable - the final year is rust as opposed to the greens/blues of previous years. It makes you think the final year was especially different. But it wasn’t.

If you study the graph, you get the point. Every year declined and every month was lower than the previous year’s. But who wants to study a graphic that hard? I might as well just read the interpretation. And the graph makes it hard to answer obvious questions. By how much did it decline? And when was the biggest drop?

Good Cop

Kudos to making the graph fit the column width of the magazine which is a vertical rectangle. A line graph by month over 5 years would almost necessarily be a horizontal rectangle. (Of course, they could have done a square-ish line graph with 12 months as the axis and a separate line for each year.)

They do get a "shout-out" for the pun in the title. But it’s a pun that works too hard.

Normally, you see great stuff in the Economist – simple, clean, easy to interpret. Let’s chalk this up to someone letting a small space and a bad pun get the better of them.

Another Cop

I recently discovered that Jon Peltier, whose blog "The PTS Blog" covers data visualization and who occasionally comments on our blog (thanks Jon), had a more detailed analysis of this chart and in fact even recreated it as the line charts suggested above. Check out his post on the PTS blog.


I also very much like the graphs in Business Week. Really fine works (except maybe for gridlines that are a little too dark, but that's debatable I guess).

The Business Week charts are interesting, and I've occasionally found them fodder for blog posts. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they could use some "tweaks".

"Graphic for the Sake of a Caption"

That's pretty much what I was thinking, but you've framed it so much more eloquently.

Thanks for the link, BTW.

If fitting the column width was a consideration, they could have used a line plot with time running vertically and trade amount running horizontally. Culturally speaking we are used to running the independent axis from left to right, but that need not be the case (as I learned when looking at upper-atmosphere data in school). It would still look a bit odd, but nothing like this!

Raif -

Your suggestion violates two "cultural" habits. It is usual practice to have the independent variable along the horizontal axis (though in my prior field of study there were many notable exceptions). It is even more strongly ingrained to put the passage of time along the horizontal axis.

In any case, the time axis can easily fit within a reasonable set of margins, shown by the last two charts in my related post.

Ok, to keep things in perspective: This is a flashy magazine article. Finance can be dry. What is so bad about using a graphic to fit a caption?! That's kind of the point of graphics, no?
My only critique of this particular graphic is that the line colors just don’t stand out. That and the placement of January would have made more sense at a 12 o'clock position.

I don't think that calling them out on the missing legend and horizontal axis labels is being picky. Without them, the graphic is practically an artist's illustration - not something intended to show real information.