Ben Willers
Graphic Communication

 

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  Numbers and Area:
The Challenges, Limitations And Merits Of Presenting Quantitative Information Using Area Encoding

Data visualisations are constructed using many techniques, perhaps none of these are as controversial or so thoroughly researched as the area method. It has been demonstrated through numerous scientific studies that area is typically judged to be proportional not to area itself, but to area raised to a power less than 1. This results in the reader underestimating the size of areas larger than the standard when data is visualised in this way. This has enormous implications for those who seek to visualise quantitative information because if a graph fails to accurately portray the information held within it, an erroneous impression will be left in the minds of the reader. This paper investigates whether it is possible to measure this error with which we perceive area and examines the validity of methods which are intended to compensate for this. Case studies spanning over 150 years are then used to highlight the limitations and merits of using area to show statistical information.

This author has observed the growing popularity in recent years for the area method in data visualisations, especially in the space of visual journalism. Although the technology which is used to create these and similar data visualisations has changed out of all recognition over the last few decades, the human visual system has remained largely the same. For this reason a review of the experimental studies into the perceptions of area and a critique of the visual work produced in this field is both urgent and timely.
 
     
   
   
  Ben Willers 2012