Op-Charts and Information Resolution

By Ryan Powers

As they’ve done every few months for a few years now, Michael O’Hanlon and his colleagues at Brookings put out their op-chart that serves as an update on the “state of the conflict” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan using a bunch of broad quantifiable metrics. While the substance of the chart is worthy of comment, I’ll leave that to others. What I really want to focus on the design of the chart itself. It isn’t really a good way to convey information about the state of the current U.S. military interventions. Here is the top portion of the chart:

In general, the chart — which is really just a souped-up data table — has three columns with data from this year and two previous years, so the reader can compare change over time. As you can see O’Hanlon et al give snapshots of troop levels, causalities, public opinion. The background of each cell varies depending on the favorability of the conditions being measured. And all of this is sort of layered on top of a photo of a clipboard and graph paper; what Edward Tufte would call “content-free decoration.”

If they broke out of this clipboard mold, I think O’Hanlon et al could give readers more information and a better understanding of the situation. Take a look at this example from Tufte which gives the reader much more information, much faster, in much less space: