Paint drip charts (or, what IS that?)

At the end of my summer fellowship, I tweeted:

Tweet from @alyssafowers that reads, "It's POSTER TIME at my summer fellowship, which means that I hear "what IS that" every time someone walks behind my desk."

I can’t blame my coworkers for being confused when I was working on… this:


(A PDF version of the chart is here.)

I called it a paint drip chart. Or an, “everything sure is a mess, isn’t it” chart. Or a “distributions in three dimensions” chart.

I created the paint drip chart because I wanted to show proportions within individual cases. This chart is wild, absolute nonsense, and I’m very proud of it. However, it is also wild and absolute nonsense. So why on earth did I use it?

Making wacky graphs is fun. Using them to communicate is a risk. They take more attention to read, and there’s always a chance that the reader will give up entirely or misunderstand what the chart is trying to show.

I decided to use the paint drip chart for four reasons:

  1. The chart was a good match for the venue. I designed this graphic for a poster session and a presentation. In both scenarios, I was on hand to talk through the visualization and answer any questions. I usually go for clarity over attention-seeking, but…
  2. The chart is really good at pulling people in. At the poster session, the paint drip chart drew people across the room to ask me what it meant. During the presentation, audience members who had listened with polite interest started leaned forward, asking questions, and discussing policy implications.
  3. I was sharing the chart with data geeks. We presented at the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, and at an event called the Data Science for the Public Good symposium. I knew that my audience was used to interpreting data visualizations, so I gambled that they would stick with me through an explanation of the chart. They did.
  4. There wasn’t a simpler way to do it. I weighed the options and decided that showing matches within individual jobs was worth the demands of a complex chart.

Read on for more about the meaning of this paint drip chart, other versions that never saw the light of day, and instructions on how to make your own!

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