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UNCHARTED TERRITORY

Stop making charts when a table is better

The prices at a gasoline station.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Simple yet effective.
  • Dan Kopf
By Dan Kopf

Data editor

This article is more than 2 years old.

Charts are cool. But they are not always necessary, or even helpful. I am here to make a case for the humble, effective table.

While the use of tables to display data in rows and columns goes back, at least, to the 2nd century, the chart is a relatively new innovation. Bar, line, and pie charts, the workhorses of data visualization, were all invented by Scottish political economist William Playfair at the turn of the 18th century. Playfair thought his charts were a particularly excellent way to show changes of magnitude over time. For example, in one of the earliest known charts, Playfair brilliantly used a line chart to show the evolution of England’s balance of trade.

The goal of putting data into charts, with few exceptions, should be to help people quickly understand numerical patterns and relationships. Charts are often incredibly effective at doing this. The chart below, which shows the stock market capitalization of Tesla and Nissan over time, is an example of a visual that allows the reader to rapidly comprehend a large amount of information.

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