Flatten Your Data

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Bells and whistles can be a problem when visualizing data. Edward Tufte, the grandfather of modern data viz, entreated us to remove any non-data ink. The idea is to focus on what matters — the story the data is telling us — without any unnecessary distractions.

Making visualizations look three-dimensional is almost always a distraction and a distortion. To make something look 3D, you have to use a technique called “foreshortening” which means that parts that are supposed to be perceived as closer in space are larger (see red slice of the pie in the image below), and parts that are supposed to be perceived as farther away are smaller (see green and blue slices). The angles represented on the 2D chart on the left, as you can see, are distorted on the 3D chart on the right, making it more difficult to judge the relative size of the slices.

Another way of creating the illusion of three dimensions is to obscure some objects with others to make it appear that one object is in front of another. But, of course, this is a problem for accurate assessment in a data viz. For example, in the 3D bar chart below, the green bars for "C" are barely visible whereas the flat image shows the green bars clearly.

Is it ever a good idea to make data visualizations look 3D? Yes, but rarely. The rule is simple. Only use 3D visualizations for 3D spatial data such as a diagram showing airflow over a spacecraft. Otherwise keep it flat.

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.