I gave a talk at the Outlier conference earlier this year, with the somewhat elaborate title, The Joys – and Dangers – of Bespoke and Unusual Chart Types. Though I eventually decided to go with the much shorter, This Should Have Been A Bar Chart! You can watch it on YouTube now.
In the talk, I go through a number of examples, some of them recent, some of them a little older, of charts that are unusual in one way or another. These aren’t the kinds of charts that work for any old data, they’re often quite specific (or, bespoke) to the context and situation. And they don’t always show a lot of data, either. But that can be a strength when it makes a chart stand out, stick in your head, or makes you look in the first place.
I also believe that we tend to train people to make visualizations that are devoid of any fun (hence, this should have been a bar chart!). Sure, you can overdo the fun, but you can also make plain, boring charts that all look the same and are completely uninteresting. Throwing in a bit of fun can make a huge difference if you actually care to reach an audience.
I use a few quotes from the paper I published with Matt Brehmer at VIS last year, one of which got quite a few reactions right after the talk in February: to show ordinary data in extraordinary ways. I should probably have gone with that one as the title (I actually am for an upcoming talk at the New York Data Vis Meetup), because it summarizes what I think we should strive for in a really crisp and pithy way.
I end the talk with a bit of a taxonomy of more elaborate charts along two axes, chart familiarity and data specificity. They’re somewhat independent, but not entirely. I think they are useful when considering unusual or bespoke charts, to decide how far you want to go away from the plain bar charts or similar, and what that might mean for your audience.