I was flipping through my copy of William Cleveland’s The Elements of Graphing Data the other day; it’s a book worth revisiting. I’ve always liked Cleveland’s approach to visualization as statistical analysis. His quest to ground visualization principles in the context of human visual cognition (he called it “graphical perception”) generated useful advice for designing effective graphics .
I confess I don’t always follow his advice. Sometimes it’s because I don’t agree with him, but also it’s because I use ggplot for visualization, and I’m lazy. I like ggplot because it excels at layering multiple graphics into a single plot and because it looks good; but deviating from the default presentation is often a bit of work. How much am I losing out on by this? I decided to do the work and find out.
Details of specific plots aside, the key points of Cleveland’s philosophy are:
- A graphic should display as much information as it can, with the lowest possible cognitive strain to the viewer.
- Visualization is an iterative process. Graph the data, learn what you can, and then regraph the data to answer the questions that arise from your previous graphic.
Of course, when you are your own viewer, part of the cognitive strain in visualization comes from difficulty generating the desired graphic. So we’ll start by making the easiest possible ggplot graph, and working our way from there — Cleveland style.