champagne anarchist | armchair activist

Is it still ok to ridicule pie charts

Workers without job security as a percentage of all working people in the Netherlands. The pink slice shows the percentage in 2003; the red slice how much this has increased since. Data Statistics Netherlands, chart Relaunch animation.

In a series of articles that caused a bit of a commotion among chart geeks, Robert Kosara summarised the findings of a number of studies on pie charts. In one of the articles, he observes:

Pie charts are generally looked down on in visualization, and many people pride themselves on saying mean things about them and the people who use them.

I guess I’m one of those people who look down on pie charts. Sure, I’m not as outspoken as the respected Edward Tufte, who famously wrote that «the only worse design than a pie chart is several of them». I’m not always against pie charts and I’ve even experimented with animated pie charts to illustrate change in a proportion. But I’m not above making lame jokes about pie charts either. My rule of thumb would be: don’t use pie charts - unless you can come up with a good reason why you should use one in a particular situation.

Kosara describes a number of studies in which he measured how accurately people interpret pie charts and other charts showing a proportion, e.g. 27%. According to his findings, exploded pie charts are doing worse than regular pie charts (phew!) and square pie charts are doing better. Interestingly, a stacked bar chart appears to be doing worse than a regular pie chart (note that a stacked bar chart depicting a single proportion amounts to something that looks like a progress bar).

It’ll be interesting to see how this holds up in future studies. But for now, the finding that (stacked) bar charts are doing worse than pie charts may come as a bit of a shock, for there appears to be a sort of consensus that bar charts are generally better than pie charts. Question is, better at what?

Workers without job security as a percentage of all working people in the Netherlands. Data Statistics Netherlands, chart

A bar chart is quite good at showing that the level of workers without job security in the Netherlands was higher in 2015 than in 2014. But which chart type is better at showing how much the share has increased between 2003 and 2015? Until recently I would have said «the bar chart» without hesitation, but now I’m not so sure anymore.

That said - I think it’s still ok to ridicule 3D exploded pie charts.

Robert Kosara summarises his findings here and here. The recent studies were done in collaboration with Drew Skau; an older study in collaboration with Caroline Ziemkiewicz. The Tufte quote is from his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The charts above show workers with permanent jobs and a fixed number of hours per week, as a percentage of all working people in the Netherlands (not just employees), source CBS.

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