The stylish radial chart

Traveling in Saudi Arabia a few months ago I couldn’t help to notice there were many people carrying two cell phones around. Typically, one for personal contacts and another one for business. Indeed, Saudis boast a national average of almost two cellular susbcriptions per person. As the chart below shows (find it in our November issue), the U.S. lags most of the world in mobile subscriptions, especially developing countries that simply skipped the land line phase when phones became widespread. For this chart, Senior Graphics Editor Jason Treat used an interesting radial chart format:

I often wonder if readers often stop paying attention to simple charts, or whether they become invisible out of familiarity. This circular form is a pleasing design element and, in this case, a surprising and inviting way to present what otherwise would be a typical bar chart.

The three radial layers in the graphic show the number of mobile subscriptions by year, offering an additional layer of interest. For example, you can see the explosive growth in Africa since 2001 compared to Europe.

For the longest time in our production process, our chart looked mostly like the version shown below. We thought the different colors by continent helped codify and understand the information faster, but not true! Sometimes less is more. The three levels by year and the rainbow of colors were too much to digest in addition to the unfamiliar circular design. Well past our deadline, Jason was able to change the color scheme towards a more monochromatic approach. We also made a series of small edits that emphasized the organizing principle of the chart (the red lines showing the number of subscriptions) and de-emphasized the text notes around the chart, which were secondary content. Small moves like those are often what separate good from great graphics.

This type of radial chart is useful to present long data sets that would otherwise look a bit intimidating in a more conventional chart format. And the unique design allows them to carry the weight of a page as a design element when there are no additional visuals. The biggest shortcoming is that the rotated labels may be harder to read, and that’s something to ponder carefully. What do you think?

Here are two other examples, a couple of years old, by former Senior Graphics Editor Sean McNaughton, always a brilliant designer and editor when large data sets were involved.

COMING SOON To create a graphic about the amazing speed of cheetahs, we had the entire skeleton of a cheetah scanned to create an impressive 3D model. Read it later this week in National Infographic (provided I don’t lose power with the hurricane, which is very likely!)

10 thoughts on “The stylish radial chart

  1. Hi Juan! These radial charts look great indeed. Could you tell me about the tools you guys use to create them? Is there any authomatic process or you just use illustrator?

    Congrats for the blog!

  2. Hi Juan! These radial graphics do look great indeed. Could you tell about which tools are you using to manage data? Is there any automatic process or you just use illustrator?
    Congrats for the blog!

  3. Hello,
    I am no expert in the field, I am just a passionately curios person.
    Please apologize me in advance if I say stupid things due to my ignorance.
    I have been spending long minutes in trying to understand what I read in the first graphics.

    What I came up with is this explanation, For instance, if we compare U.S. (US) with Saudi Arabia (SA)
    If we roughly approximate the graphical representations with percentages and we take 1 subscription as 100% and 2 subscriptions as 200%
    we would have:

    2001 SA = 10% US = 40%
    2006 SA = 80% US = 79%
    2010 SA = 190% US = 90%

    But still it’s not clear to me how to read it.
    Would it mean: in 2010 every 100 people in SA had 190 subscriptions while in US every 100 people had 90 subscriptions?
    Is this correct?

    Thank you for your time.

  4. The charts look very appealing, and are very creative ways of presenting boring data. It must be quite a challenge!
    As for the rotated text, the one marked South Africa, in the ‘mobilizing nations’ chart, is perhaps the only one which may be a little hard to read (perhaps because its rotated beyond 90 degrees?)

    The charts, resembling spirals, are even more appealing. I tried searching for my own country in the graphic, and kept wondering, what is the exact voter turnout… Are we above, or below 50%? Would it be possible to include numbers, without cluttering the graphic?

    I enjoyed reading the articles that you have written thus far – a wonderful mix of art and science. I am looking forward to more posts :)

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