Saturday, December 20, 2014

NPR's College Majors visualization: A critique

There's so much good visualization being published nowadays that it's easy to miss most of it. Thanks to the World Bank's Visualization Tumblr I have discovered this simple but deep interactive stacked area chart by NPR. I love it.

Stacked area charts work well as overviews, and to make sure that readers understand that you're showing parts of a whole. But they're not great at all if what you need to see is the variation of each single segment, as its baseline shifts depending on how thick or thin the color ribbons below it are. Therefore, what the NPR folks did was to let you click on any portion to see it isolated and with a 0-baseline, a strategy also used in this NYT's classic. Nice.

Just to be picky, I'd like to suggest a few tweaks:

• Better organization. It's not clear why Chemistry and Communications are in the same group (blue), or why Economics and Business aren't side by side. Clustering the majors into larger categories —Physical Sciences, Biomedical Sciences, Social Sciences, Humanities, etc.— would make the graphic clearer.

• Animated transitions.

• An option to compare two or more majors, at the end.


  1. I'm typically not a fan of area charts and line charts with so many categories. It's difficult to see differences between categories and changes within a single category.

    I agree though that being able to select a single category makes this much more useful.

    And to your point, ideally they'd have a "dashboard" view where you could see the complete chart and then different subsets, all in the same window (instead of drilling into a single category in a new window).

  2. I can answer your question about the field grouping and colors. The fields are listed alphabetically and they just applied a color scheme to them. The software most likely picked the gradiations of the colors based on the number of fields.

  3. Yes, you're right. Still, alphabetical isn't the best choice here, right?