A datagraphic smorgasbord from The Atlantic

The 2011 January issue of Atlantic magazine contains a graphic "How the Recession Changed Us" by Timothy Lavin featuring 3 dozen datagraphics designed by Amanda Buck. Although most of the comparative exhibits are easy to follow, a few could be improved.


First is my redesign, which clearly shows that bankruptcies have about doubled in the 3 years. One can also estimate the rate of bankruptcies per population by remembering that the US has about 300,000,000, people or perhaps 100,000,000 families, so the 2010 rate may have been about 1.5 per 100 families. The original counts - which are certainly estimates - have been rounded to thousands.



The original graphic is difficult to interpret, mainly because the shapes of the "bells" obscure the magnitudes. In fact, because they are arranged side-by-side one could interpret the data as some kind of time series.

The use of different colors is also unnecessary as the convention is right = later and the year labels (though cluttered by the phases of the intervals) also show this. However, the color scheme is generally consistent, but I'd use the same saturation for both. In general I disapprove of almost all datagraphic innovations as the "surprise" should be in the data comparisons themselves and not in how they're presented.


The 4 data elements were made into an Excel spreadsheet and then represented as a "column chart."

Although I've been gaining more experience tweaking Excel "charts," the final product required the following conventions:

  1. Color the plot area lighter than the overall exhibit.
  2. Remove the gridlines and the vertical axis (though I prefer to keep it, the original graphic had none).
  3. Make the labels as large as possible consistent with a balanced design. Excel's data labels (the actual numbers above the bars) are too small but if the font is increased the text wraps.


Timothy Lavin "How the recession changed us: What a difference two years makes," the Atlantic 2010 Jan/Feb. Graphic by Amanda Buck.

I thank Melanie De Cola for bringing this collection of datagraphics to my attention.