Let’s look at some data and see how easy it is to convey different, valid opinions.
“Iraq’s Bloody Toll” appeared in the South China Morning Post in late 2011, designed by Simon Scarr. It shows the number of deaths per month in Iraq from 2003 until the beginning of the US withdrawal of troops at the end of 2011.
What visual metaphor is this chart creating, and how does that control how you read it?
Three simple choices create the strong emotive message: title, color, and orientation of the bars.
The title tells you how to read the chart. Just three words—“Iraq’s Bloody Toll”—establish the author’s agenda. Second, the bars point downward. Finally, they are red. What do you see? A smear of blood, dripping down the screen or page.
This isn’t deception; it’s design put to great effect. This piece of work rightly won silver at Malofiej, an annual infographics awards conference, in 2012.
How easy, then, is it to control the message of this chart only by changing those three decisions Simon made? Let’s point the bars upward and change the color:
Now look again at the pattern of deaths over time. Sure, the total death count is a terrible tragedy, but when the bars point upward, the picture begins to look a little more optimistic.
After the initial combat phase in 2003, deaths dropped. By 2006 and 2007, sectarian violence was ripping Iraq apart. After that, however, deaths again began to drop. In fact, there are fewer monthly deaths at the end of 2011 than at any period since the start. Now, instead of “Iraq’s Bloody Toll,” we could legitimately call it “Iraq: Deaths on the Decline.”
Title, orientation, and color are the only three differences between the two versions of the chart, and yet their messages are totally different. Think about the implication for the charts you see and the charts you read.
Neither of those charts is lying. The opinionated nature of charts should be acknowledged and embraced. We should include opinionated charts in our daily discourse.