Building Better Bar Charts

Ryan Morrill

In my previous post, I covered the increasing popularity of "infographics" — both the term and the wide range of examples. I cautioned against unthinking imitation; like most trendy things, their surface shine can distract from their bad qualities, and it’s easy to lose sight of basic principles and objectives. And this distraction is partly to blame for the currently polarized perception of bar charts, which are seen as both antiquated and ideal.

Both Forrester clients and internal colleagues often tell me “We want something better than bar charts” when describing how they would like to see their data visualized. At the same time, I also hear from others, jaded by the onslaught of overdesigned data graphics, who insist there is nothing better or more accurate than bar charts when it comes to visualizing and comparing data points. They don’t need all the “bells and whistles.” “Edward Tufte!” they cry.

So, what’s causing this divide? How can a chart type be so polarizing? I think the answer lies in both the implied perception of bar charts as this basic, limited chart and the array of bad examples of both alternative visualization methods and bar charts themselves.

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