A book with a bunch of simple graphs

Howard Friedman sent me a new book, The Measure of a Nation, subtitled How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing. Without commenting on the substance of Friedman’s recommendations, I’d like to endorse his strategy of presentation, which is to display graph after graph after graph showing the same message over and over again, which is that the U.S. is outperformed by various other countries (mostly in Europe) on a variety of measures. These aren’t graphs I would ever make—they are scatterplots in which the x-axis conveys no information. But they have the advantage of repetition: once you figure out how to read one of the graphs, you can read the others easily.

Here’s an example which I found from a quick Google:

I can’t actually figure out what is happening on the x-axis, nor do I understand the “star, middle child, dog” thing. But I like the use of graphics. Lots more fun than bullet points. Seriously.

P.S. Just to be clear: I am not trying to mock or disparage Friedman’s book.  In all seriousness, I applaud the use of graphs, even those that I would not make myself.

P.P.S. All the comments below are ragging on the above graph. That’s fine, but let me re-emphasize that, for all their problems, I like the graphs. Considering that the probable alternatives would be tables or a confusing presentation of partial information in paragraph form.

1. zbicyclist says:

This graph looks more suitable for Kaiser Fung’s “Junk Charts” blog.

2. Wayne says:

I found the following online: “Leading countries were labeled Stars and lagging countries were labeled Dogs.” So I guess it’s just a catchier “Outstanding”, “Average”, “Poor” rating system.

• Brian says:

Yes, but that rating scale should be attached to the y-axis, no? Slightly odd graph.

• Jeremy Fox says:

More than slightly odd, I’d say! If I’m reading it correctly, the x-axis is just rank–Japan ranks first, Greece second, etc. Which is fine. But if that’s what it is, why not just call it that? Or at least use words on the x-axis that make it clear that it’s rank order, like “first place” on the left and “last place” on the right. Even if you want to use your axis labels to make a rhetorical point (Japan is a ‘star’, the US is a ‘dog’), doesn’t confusing labeling get in the way of the rhetoric?

I guess the idea is that people are only supposed to read the graphs while reading the book, and that first reading the relevant passages in the book makes the x-axis instantly clear?

• Wayne says:

It appears that they have made a 1-D graph into a 2-D graph by moving the entries in the X axis based on the value in the Y axis. So the X axis is redundant information. It might allow the rating scale to be non-linear against Y values, though I imagine it’s just redundancy.

3. John Mashey says:

Stars and dogs:
Andrew: you haven’t been subjected to enough presentations from business analysts:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth-share_matrix

Middle children is a new one on me, seems a weird mixture.
I can’t say I’m crazy about these graphs.
What would Tufte say?

4. Kjetil Halvorsen says:

As a dog-lover I mislike the use of “Dog” in the graph …

(google is marking “mislike” as wrong! ¿Why?)

5. derek says:

I thought it was rank, but then I realized the points weren’t evenly spaced. So what accounts for the uneven spacing?

6. Eli Rabett says:

The graph is built to convey information, which it does quite well. There are two axes. The X axis is roughly rank order, the y infant mortality. The shape of the curve shows that Japan and Greece are exceptional stars, for the middle children mortality varies roughly linearly with rank, and the Anglo-Saxon countries suck. The labels on the x axis are to catch your attention.

7. Howard says:

Eli – yes you are exactly correct. The x-axis is the rank and the y-axis is the value. As I explain in the book (and in some of my blog pieces) the leading countries are Stars and the lagging countries are Dogs. Middle Children as re just that, neither Dogs nor Stars. It is a one-dimensional variant on BCG’s 2×2 matrix where the alternative is merely a lot of redundant tables.