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– 1% of the news in infographics …

Too sexy for its own good? Ebb and Flow At the Box Office

You can Click the graphic to see it in higher resolution at the New York Times' website

You can click the graphic to see it in higher resolution at the New York Times' website

The graphic shown alongside this article has just won the Malofiej-award as the best graphic produced in the year 2008. Do you agree with the judges on this one?

I won’t be too surprised if you’ll nod your head and say yes! – the graphic has been widely discussed already in the blogosphere, and most of the comments I have read, is very enthusiastic about the visualization of box office receipts.

Myself – I’m not too sure about this kind of ‘visual journalism’. My main gripe with a graphic such as this is – Where is the story? The headline sorts of point to this problem itself: ‘Ebb and Flow At the Box Office’ – sounds a bit like a working title for a dataset, where the journalistic angle is yet to be decided.

Fun With Numbers

At any time I’ll acknowledge the technical execution, the subtleness, the elegance, the massive dataset. But I still have questions for the real usefullness of this graphic. Would it be too rude to call this category ‘Fun With Numbers’? – Or a more polite version: ‘Art With an Infographic Function’.

Reading the comments from some of the readers has been fun and a bit disturbing too. Someone named Codepink at Gawker gives us this observation: ‘It’s like looking at a vagina in 3-D movie but when you don’t wear the 3-D glasses’ and a few comments later you get MisterHippity chiming in with: ‘To me, the colors suggest a flowing stream of diarrhea. The anal leakage of Hollywood, if you will.’

(Note to self: Readers can really get anything out of your graphics … )

A closer look at the visualization technique

Well, back here at VisualJournalism, I’ll concentrate a bit on the visualization technique rather than what the shape and color might resemble. (And actually I do find both the shape and the colors very pretty).

Let me point to some of the details:
1. The smooth lines are certainly a pleasing aesthetic choice – but they are incorrect …
streamgraphs_example1a. The Streamgraph is made up from weekly numbers – and it should be obvious that a movie opens with full impact in the first week. But this important feature is not shown correct in the graph, where it takes a while before the movie is at full height.

1b. When you look even closer to the graph, and compare it with a traditional barchart you’ll notice that the areas for each week simply aren’t correct. There is too much ‘friction’ in this method to show the numbers correct. In the example with Spiderman 3 you’ll notice how a lot of the opening week spills over to the second week.
Perhaps these problems could be solved if we give up a bit of the sexy smoothness, and instead start each curve with the full datavalue rather than starting out from zero every time?

In the paper about Streamgraphs written by Lee Byron & Martin Wattenberg you’ll read this:
“A key theme is the role of aesthetics in visualization design, and the process and trade-offs necessary to create engaging information graphics”. You can read the entire 10-page paper here (.pdf). It’s very interesting and very thorough. I’ll highly recommend it.

2. When you choose to show something symmetrically you give your readers a hard time deciphering the actual happenings.

closeup Look at the example where you can see how there is a definite ebb between Spiderman 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean. But then on the other side of the axis you see Shrek 3 shooting up. You get a lot of sexy smoothness and curves again, but what is really happening? If you want to see the total box office earnings, you’re left in the dark.

3. Specifically for the online version – which is tilted 90 degrees and run horizontally instead of vertically as the printed version: It is really confusing that going below the middle is just the same as going upwards. Everyone always assumes that up is good and down is negative, so unless your users are really into the thing, you’ll risk confusing them to an extent, where they’ll give up on the interactive before they understand it.

And finally – when I see a cool service of ‘Click for details’ for every movie in the interactive, it’s not the NYT Movie overview I’m looking for. I want to be able to see the total box office earnings for a movie or being able to zoom in on the weeks and see number of theatres or the ebb and flows of the daily earnings.

All that said – I can certainly see why the judges made their decision to give this entry a gold medal. And it’s not too often you see an infographic piece like this discussed in a broader community.

/Gert K Nielsen