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Goodbye to the pie? Daring to be different with data

44’s Emily New had all sorts of IC topics to choose from for her blog… so why did she pick pie charts? Read on as she explores the value that creative data visualisation can bring to measuring the success of an IC campaign, and whether we can liven up a campaign plan by daring to use data in exciting new ways to deliver meaningful messages.  

Everyone loves a good pie chart, don’t they?

I certainly do and, when putting together a feedback report for a project or campaign, it’s the first thing I turn to when I need to take data and share it with colleagues in a simple and visual way. 

You can also have a lot of fun with pie charts (yes, I’ve said it). Just Google it – there are a whole load of pie charts about communication, content and design that you can use to entertain and amuse fellow communicators and creatives everywhere. My current favourites include:

On another note, pop song lyrics can also be displayed as pie charts* surprisingly well too:

But, while I do love pie charts for their simplicity (and their ability to make us laugh at Rick Astley all over again), there’s a question mark around whether the good old pie chart really is the best way to display our data.

Being able to gauge employee reaction, interaction and new behaviours is a vital part of planning any IC campaign. But so too is sharing this measurement to demonstrate the impact your work has had. After all, what’s the point of creating an exciting, interactive piece of communication, getting a great employee response, and then failing to impress peers and stakeholders at the last moment simply because your data sharing has failed to hit the mark?

Colourful but confusing?

Data platform providers Geckoboard suggest that using pie charts – while colourful and visual – are now considered to be bad practice in the data visualisation world. Edward Tufte even Tweeted that ‘Pie chart users deserve the same suspicion and scepticism as those who mix up its/it’s, there/their…’ – clearly he’s had his fill.

The thinking behind this is that pie charts take up more space and – if datasets don’t show big differences – can be quite confusing to interpret quickly. As you add more segments and colours, the problem gets worse. Then there are 3D pie charts which, with the right perspective, can even trick people into seeing false data (see Apple’s pie chart trickery here).

Bringing your data to life

So, if we agree that pies are sometimes best saved for dessert, then what should we be using to maximise the effect our data has?

Instead of static scatter graphs and boring bar charts, why not think about displaying data through bubble charts, decision trees or concept maps? How about using animated graphics or quick GIFs? Why not jazz up some big numbers by matching them with relevant images to make the content more tangible? Just look at these imaginative infographics by Marion Lutterberger, who produced an entire annual report for an Austrian drug support charity by using real-life, hard-hitting imagery to contextualise her data and create real impact.  

More than just measurement

Writing this blog also got me thinking about how meaningful data could be taken and displayed in new and exciting ways as part of a campaign too – rather than just being used to measure its result at the end.

Here are some thought-provoking, real-life examples showing creative data visualisation in action:

Audio files: In a TedTalk by David Epstein, Usain Bolt’s record-breaking 100m time (9.7 seconds) was compared with his competitors via an audio file, with each ‘beep’ representing a different finish time. Listen here.

Data sculptures: A 27-ft sculpture (pictured) was installed in Coventry earlier this year, made from more than 100,000 confiscated knifes, to drive awareness of the high levels of knife crime in the region.

Living Maps: A ‘moss’ map was created to show the change of summertime rainfall in Europe. A species of live fire moss was plated onto a special surface, and turned green or brown depending on how much water that country received.

Artwork: To mark the 70th birthday of the NHS, a series of artworks were created from medical equipment to represent the cost of healthcare for different age groups of people at different stages of their lives, based on the time it takes for a marble to fall. Watch it here.

You may not be communicating about knife crime, athletes, climate change or healthcare, and it’s true that measurement isn’t just about reciting the numbers. It’s also about illustrating changes made, engagement levels, employee awareness and project impact. However, there’s no denying that doing something daring with data can help your measurement stand out, or even help to create a new campaign experience for your employees.

And what about saying goodbye to pie charts? Clearly, they’re not suited to every data occasion, but – to go back to Rick Astley – ‘I’m never gonna give you up…’


*Pie charts borrowed and redrawn from Pinterest and Reddit.

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