You Can Design a Good Chart with R

Whether Tufte meant it or not, this question of whether R users think of design as worth their time and investment is too important to ignore.To understand it better, I looked at the 2018 Data Visualization Survey..I don’t use R or Illustrator in my practice and the survey participants were skewed toward my social media reach, but I’m lucky enough to know a few people who are prominent in different data visualization communities who also shared the survey..So, while it’s no surprise that this survey overrepresents D3, it has a good representation of people who use R and even a decent number of people using Illustrator for data visualization.Of the 627 people who filled out the survey, all but 133 indicated they used R, Illustrator or D3 in their data visualization practice with many using some combination of those tools.A few of the questions had to do specifically with the role of design in data visualization and one in particular asked the participant to estimate the amount of time per day they spent on design.This joy plot (or ridgeline plot) only shows the distribution for those respondents who indicated they spent any time at all on design.Plotting this, we can see that R users lag D3 users in their time investment in design and seriously lag Illustrator users..That difference in investment in design from the D3 community and the R community is not so enormous but remember that the D3 community itself suffers from a lack of investment in design.Most interesting is the shape of the curves when Illustrator is part of the data visualization process..If the respondent declared R and Illustrator among their tools (but not D3) the investment of time in design was actually less..In all other cases, Illustrator being part of your toolkit seemed to indicate a greater value for the design process.When we compare the people who did not give any time to design to those who did, the results are more striking.Nearly half of participants who use R but not D3 or Illustrator do not think design is worth any time at all in their process..I suspect this reflects not only a lack of prioritization of design among R users but also a definitional difference..I would not be surprised to find many R users think of design purely as graphical design.The difference becomes even more clear if we divide the design category into those who spend a minimal amount of time on design (1 hour or less per day) with those who spend more.So while there are examples of beautifully designed charts created purely with R, the survey responses support the stereotype of R charts as only those with the light gray background and default color scheme and little or no labels and annotation..It also supports a fundamental aspect of Tufte’s critique, and why we should be more open to criticism even when it comes in a less-than-perfect package.But there’s something else about the survey: The majority of respondents said they wanted to be better at design with data visualization..And in the case of those who use R, this desire to emphasize leveling up design over data was more prominent, not less..It might be this realization that the community needed to work on its design skills that made it so sensitive to Tufte’s criticism.Design is intimidating, especially in data visualization where little has been done to translate it into maxims beyond a few things about color, labeling and chart selection..There also seems to be a bias among statisticians and data scientists against “pretty” charts as being something that are somehow rhetorically compromised.. More details

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