Chartjunk, a term first coined by Edward Tufte, refers to all those elements in a chart that add no further value. Chartjunk comes in many shapes and size – redundant labels, unnecessary gridlines, over-the-top use of colors and everything that a ‘creative’ mind can think of. However what should be kept in mind is that this term also has a strong contextual meaning. An element that may appear as chartjunk in one graph may serve a useful function in another and vice-versa. Hence a broad all-encompassing classification of an element as chartjunk should be avoided.

Chartjunk can be easy to spot for the trained eye and once you’ve had an initiation, it will typically be one of the first few things that you will tend to notice when information is presented to you graphically. Let’s take the example of the chart shown below. Admittedly it is a pretty readable chart.


However on closer inspection, we are able to identify a number of elements that can be eliminated without taking anything (that matters) away from the chart.


These include:

Gridlines : The gridlines are self evident. However in cases where the amount of data presented in large, gridlines can always be given lighter shades so as to allow the focus to remain on the information being presented.

Borders : Normally borders will not really have an impact on the data being presented. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, they would not interact with the data or the visuals. Removing them will save precious screen ‘real-estate’.

Background Colors : If anything, background colors will in most cases, tend to decrease the contrast and delay the discovery of the message being conveyed. However, once in a while we come across graphics that are exceptions. In these cases, the background helps to paint a story that the compliments the narrative and the data being presented.

Other elements that can act as chartjunk can include legends when they are self evident, minor-tickmarks and data tables. However as I said, chartjunk is contextual and one size does not fit all.

Here’s our chart without the accompanying chartjunk.


Guess how much area did we save by eliminating chartjunk?

A full 45% !

(that was an approximation but brings out the point)

Excel Formula, Excel Chart, Excel Macro, Excel VBA, Pivot Table Excel, Excel Dashboard

What Do You Think ?

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Comments and Trackbacks

  1. jeff weir wrote:

    Great, timely post.

    The data can be allowed even more room to breathe /shine if we:
    1. remove the border from the plot area too (the axis frames will remain, and so still nicely frames the graph, without being as much as a distraction as the heavy square border). Stephen Few has some nice examples in his book ‘Information Dashboard Design’, where he says ‘A complete border around the data region of a graph should be avoided when a single set of axis would adequately define the space’.
    2. change the major unit on the vertical (y) axis to 20 – gets rid of unneccessary detail. i.e all we really need is half the units:
    80 cm
    60 cm
    40 cm
    20 cm
    0 cm

    (Alternately, we could get rid of the y axis altogether, and instead keep the data labels at the top of the bar. This is often great for powerpoint presentations, and saves readers from having to guestimate the readings themselves. Garr Renolds has some great examples in his book ‘Presentation Zen’.)

    3. Consider changing to a custom number format so the y axis reads in cm – I always prefer to have the unit right where people are reading the numbers, so they don’t have to go hunting for it. Now the ‘cm’ in the title can go, too.

    4. If space was at a premium, we could reduce the white space between the graph series also – there’s currently more white space than data, and I personally prefer thicker bars, and thinner spaces.

    But these above changes are just snacking compared to the chartjunk you ate away in your great post!

  2. Ajay wrote:

    Jeff – All points well made.

    I think putting labels on top of the bars is a great idea for presentations. It really eliminates the chance of an exchange between the presenter and a member of the audience which end abruptly when the person asking the question realizes that he read the wrong number from the axis.

    However Point #1 is a personal weakness – something that I picked from Jon Peltier.

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