2.6 The “best” graph ever drawn

2.6.1 What is a good graph?

  • Q: In your view, what are the characteristics of a good graph?

2.6.2 The graph

  • What is shown on the graph below? How much data (dimensions/variables) are visualized? What story does it tell us? Please discuss in groups (english version) Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Joseph_Minard

2.6.3 Modern version

  • An English version below and a ggplot version here. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Joseph_Minard

2.6.4 Tufte’s view: What can we learn from it?

  • Charles Joseph Minard (check out the other graphs)
  • Tufte: graph “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn”; “tells a rich, coherent story with its multivariate data, far more enlightening than just a single number bouncing along over time. Six variables are plotted: the size of the army, its location on a two-dimensional surface, direction of the army’s movement, and temperature on various dates during the retreat from Moscow” (Tufte 2001, 2:40)
  • “Graphical excellence is the well-designed presentation of interesting data—a matter of substance, of statistics, and of design….[It] consists of complex ideas communicated with clarity, precision, and efficiency….[It] is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space….[It] is nearly always multivariate….And graphical excellence re-quires telling the truth about the data” (Tufte 2001, 2:51; as cited in Healy and Moody 2014, 109)
  • Healy and Moody (2014, 109): Tour de force such as Minard’s “can be described and admired, but there are no compositional principles on how to create that one wonderful graphic in a million.” (Tufte 2001, 2:177)
    • The best one can do for “more routine, work a day designs” is to suggest some guidelines such as “have a properly chosen format and design,” “use words, numbers,and drawing together,” “display an accessible complexity of detail,” and “avoid content-free decoration, including chartjunk” (Tufte 2001, 2:177)
  • First lessons on what is a good graph…


Healy, Kieran, and James Moody. 2014. “Data Visualization in Sociology.” Annu. Rev. Sociol. 40 (July): 105–28.

Tufte, Edward R. 2001. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Vol. 2. Graphics press Cheshire, CT.