Kaiser Fung shares this graph from Ritchie King:
What they did right:
– Did not put the data on a map
– Ordered the countries by the most recent data point rather than alphabetically
– Scale labels are found only on outer edge of the chart area, rather than one set per panel
– Only used three labels for the 11 years on the plot
– Did not overdo the vertical scale either
The nicest feature was the XL scale applied only to South Korea. This destroys the small-multiples principle but draws attention to the top left corner, where the designer wants our eyes to go. I would have used smaller fonts throughout.
I agree with all of Kaiser’s comments. I could even add a few more, like using light gray for the backgrounds and a bright blue for the lines, spacing the graphs well, using full country names rather than three-letter abbreviations. There are so many standard mistakes that go into default data displays that it is refreshing to see a simple graph done well.
One way to appreciate the greatness of the chart is to look at alternatives.
Here, the Economist tries the lazy approach of using a map: (link)
For one thing, they have to give up the time dimension.
A variation is a cartogram in which the physical size and shape of countries are mapped to the underlying data. Here’s one on Worldmapper (link):
One problem with this transformation is what to do with missing data.
Yup. Also, the big big trouble with the transformed map is that the #1 piece of information it gives you is something we all know already—that China has a lot of people. Sure, if you look carefully you can figure out other things—hey, India has a billion people too but it’s really small on the map, I guess nobody’s drinking much there—but that’s all complicated reasoning involving mental division.
To put it another way, if this distorted map works—and it may well “work,” in the sense of grabbing attention and motivating people to look deeper at these data, which is the #1 goal of an infographic—if it does work, it’s doing so using the Chris Rock effect, in which we enjoy the shock of recognition of a familiar idea presented in an unfamiliar way.
Wikipedia has a better map with variations of one color (link):
I agree that this one is better than the Economist map above. Wikipedia’s uses an equal-area projection (I think) so you don’t get so distracted by massive Greenland, a sensible color scheme with a natural ordering (unlike the Economist’s where it’s obvious that red is highest and pink is next, but then you have to go back to the legend to figure out how the other colors are ordered), also the legend has high numbers on top and low on bottom which again is sensible.
Still and all, the original grid of lines is better for me because (a) it shows the comparisons quantitatively (which in this case makes sense; those differences are huge (actually, so huge that it makes me wonder whether the comparisons are appropriate; is wine drinking in Portugal so much different than downing shots of soju in Korea?)) and, (b) it shows the time trends (most notably, the declines in Russia and Brazil, the increase from a low baseline in India, and Korea’s steady #1 position).
The click-through solution
Let me conclude, as always in this sort of discussion, that displaying patterns in the data is not the only reason for a graph. Another reason is to grab attention. If an unusually-colored map catches people’s eyes, maybe that’s the best way to go. My ideal solution would be click-through: the Economist (or wherever) has the colorful map with instructions to click to see the informative grid of line plots, then you can click again and get a spreadsheet with all the numbers.