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State of the Union Applause

I’m continually impressed with The New York Times. Not only for its journalistic writing, but especially for its well-designed infographics.

The Times’ recent coverage of Bush’s State of the Union address features two superb pieces of information design. One shows the relationship between applause and speech length for each address over the past seven years. The other, an interactive infographic, compares the number of times certain words appear in the address. Both are a nice example of how information design can give readers more ways to evaluate and contextualize a given text or set of data.

Words in State of the Union Addresses

It’s great to see a newspaper pay as much attention to information design as it does to its writing, typography, and photography. Hopefully, it’ll offer inspiration to budding information designers. I can hear it now, “Mommy, I want to design charts and graphs when I grow up.”

11 Comments

  • Anneliese

    gravatarJan 25, 2007
    8:28 am

    I feel a percentage plot on the first bar graph would have been more valuable. As it is now, you can get the impression that he got the least amount of applause this year, but 2003 or 2004 might have been the same or lower.

    It comes down to what are the authors of the graph trying to convey? Are they trying to be informative or are they trying to slant things?

    What do you think the NYT was trying to convey?

  • Cujo

    gravatarJan 25, 2007
    9:06 am

    I actually think these are both lousy infographics.

    The first, as Anneliese says, should be normalized by speech length, so that the red bars show a percentage. As it is, it is impossible without doing a bunch of division to tell what trend, if any, exists in the amount of applause over time.

    The second has extremely poor data/space ratio (something like a datum per square inch), and it is not easy for the eye to distinguish the difference between, say, the circles for 24 and for 27. I find myself just using the numbers, which defeats the whole purpose. Better would have been line graphs for each word (sparklines, even).

  • Chanpory

    gravatarJan 25, 2007
    9:40 am

    Both of you are right. Shame on me for not looking more critically.

    Annaliese, you bring up a good question about the assumed neutrality of infographics. While the NYT infographics were mostly intended to be informative, it’s easy to see how information both subtly and overtly skew information to help prove a particular point. Many of us don’t scrutinize them (as my mistake with these recent two infographics) as we do with writing or editorial photography.

  • Jena

    gravatarJan 25, 2007
    10:11 am

    Let’s say someone did want to design charts and graphs…are there special programs within graphic design schools for learning about that? I only took a couple of design courses in college, so I’m not very familiar with the specialty courses that might be available. I really enjoy your site, by the way! The article about designing a resume was a great introduction to using styles in Word, which has made my work more efficient (and attractive).

  • Anneliese

    gravatarJan 25, 2007
    10:23 am

    Jena, I’m not sure about classes, but there are books out there. One person who is well known for his work on graphics presentations is Edward Tuft. He gives seminars as well.

  • Cujo

    gravatarJan 25, 2007
    10:59 am

    Jena, by all means start with the Tufte books. They’re beautiful and easy to read as well as educational. I found Envisioning Information to be the most accessible one of the first three that I’ve read.

  • Jena

    gravatarJan 25, 2007
    11:07 am

    I just checked Mr. Tufte’s website, and he’s giving a course in my town this spring. In the meantime, I suppose I will head to the library! Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Michael

    gravatarJan 27, 2007
    1:47 pm

    The New York Times does deserve credit for producing consistently high-quality infographics, especially on a tight schedule, and I’m glad you featured them here, Chanpory. They could certainly be improved, but I think that even after a quick read, the general data comparisons come across.

    So is there a hidden agenda? Does applause really correlate with approval? Does word frequency equate to importance? The story depends on how you read the data and what questions they answer or raise. I don’t know if there is a clear enough viewpoint supported here.

    Jena: Sadly, not many programs in information design exist. Reading books, taking courses, and tackling information design problems that interest you are some ways to get started. Here’s a collection of links which might be useful:

    http://understandinglab.com/IDresources/IDresources.html

  • Jena

    gravatarJan 29, 2007
    8:21 am

    Michael, thank you for the link. That list will certainly help me get started!

  • Jason

    gravatarFeb 6, 2007
    9:42 am

    I was looking at your site, and found this entry about graphs. I think most agree that the whole purpose of a graph is to quickly convey or highlight information…kind of bullet point an article. Which is why when I saw the second graphic you reference I was very surprised to see the word “Terrorism” was highlighted by a pink dot, and mentioned so very seldom in the President’s speeches. I was so suprised I decided to check it out. I did a quick search and found the complete text to the state of the union for 2005 on an MS NBC site (link below), and did a quick search. Indeed the word “Terrorism” is mentioned only one time. However, if you use the root word “terror”, you’ll find it’s mentioned ** 27 ** times. Why did they leave that out? They used alternate spellings to find “Iraq” and “Economic” themes in the speech. Then I thought, maybe they just wanted to exclude “war on terror” because it’s kind of a catch phrase. However, only 3 instances were found to be part of the catch phrase “war on terror”. Then I thought, maybe they just used a different method than I did, and all the entries are off. Nope. They all seem to match what I found.

    I didn’t research all other state of the union addresses. I’ve no doubt that since the error was not in there method, it was in their word choice, I would find the same results. I honestly don’t have the time for all that effort. I don’t think there’s any mystery re: why the NY Times did this. I look at this, and it’s clear the highlighted pink dots are meant to show me that the president is not focused on the war on terror. He’s only concerned about Iraq. Maybe it’s just a simple mistake…but I doubt it…especially with the extra highlighting. Regardless, I think it’s relevant to this site to point out how careful you have to be with your graphics. (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6902913/print/1/displaymode/1098/).

  • Chloe

    gravatarFeb 11, 2007
    8:52 am

    I want to design infographics! I am finisshing up an Environmental resource management degree, but infographicsw is where it is at. Where do I even begin?