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Bar chart races and the importance of stunning visual content

By Tom Dempster | May 2019

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If you follow the #dataviz community on Twitter, you're likely to be familiar with the recent 'bar chart race' phenomenon - where two-dimensional bars jostle for position to show progress over time. What does this tell us about the importance of producing innovative, shareable visual content in 2019?

We’re all familiar with the adage ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. The origin of the phrase dates back to March 1911, when it was featured in an instructional talk by the newspaper editor, Arthur Brisbane. In a talk to the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club, Brisbane was highlighting the importance of images in conveying a message to the public.

The phrase is now over one hundred years old - yet it feels more relevant than ever in the smartphone era, where we subject ourselves to a daily bombardment by scrolling armies of Instagram filters, embedded videos and overused GIFs.

It is now virtually impossible to click on a webpage or use a social network without encountering an image or video. This isn’t an accident - statistics show that visual content has better engagement, is more widely shared on social channels and can be more user-friendly than text alone.

The ‘bar chart race’ phenomenon

In 2019, it’s a given that social networks enable us to publish photos, videos and even livestreams. Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram all had the functionality to post images either at launch, or very shortly afterwards.

In contrast, it took Twitter five years to embrace the concept of images. The purer and arguably more innocent days of the simple 140 character, text-only tweets have long since departed. If you scroll through your timeline today, you’ll be greeted with a heady mix of stunning photos and innovative graphics (and yes, of course, those repetitive GIFs).

A recent visual trend standing out in the Twitter #dataviz community is the bar chart race. Started by Matt Navarra’s race, which showed the ranking of top brands since the year 2000, it was then popularised further by John Burn-Murdoch, a journalist at the Financial Times, who tweeted a race which explored the most populous cities in Europe over time.

Burn-Murdoch also provided the full code for the animation which allowed other data journalists to visualise their own bar chart races - including a race looking at the largest CO2 emitters over time from Simon Evans, and The Next Web’s visualisation of games console sales during the last 40 years.

Why do bar chart races work as a visual concept?

Now that we’re experiencing them on a regular basis, the concept of the #barchartrace seems remarkably simple. Yet without the ingenuity of its creator (and the public availability of the code), bar chart races simply wouldn’t exist.

The format is clearly successful, as evidenced by the number of visualisations we’re seeing. When thinking about why it works so well as a visual concept, bar chart races arrive at the intersection of the three things mentioned earlier at the beginning of this piece - engagement, shareability and user-friendliness.

By their nature, these races are engaging. They can provide fresh insights into a subject you’re already familiar with, or open your eyes to a subject you’ve never paid attention to.

They also benefit from being easily shareable. On Twitter, followers who are interested in a particular topic (whether it’s games consoles, CO2 emissions, or the eternal Messi vs. Ronaldo debate) are likely to share the content with their followers, at least some of whom will share the same interests.

Finally, the bar chart races are user-friendly. They tell a compelling story which displays the data in a unique, interesting and understandable format, lending themselves to comments or questions from viewers who may spot different points of interest within the race.

A couple of Pandable bar chart races

At Pandable, in addition to our in-house graphic design team, we utilise tools such as Flourish and Tableau for many of the data visualisations contained in our client work. Both platforms helpfully have ways to produce bar chart races - you can read how to do it in Flourish here, or the Tableau method here.

We’ve chosen to use the Flourish template to capture a couple of interesting races in the tech world. For instance, take a look at this race which tracks the percentage market share of web browsers globally since 2009:

The race does a wonderful job of telling a staggering story. In January 2009, Internet Explorer had almost 65% market share, compared to Google Chrome’s paltry 2%; fast-forward to March 2019, and the tables have been well and truly turned, with Chrome now having over 62% of the market share, and IE struggling with just 2.5%.

We’ve also looked at operating system market share dating back to 2009. At the start of the race, Microsoft had an enormous 95% share - yet the prevalence of mobile and tablet devices in the last decade has had a huge impact on the market as a whole, as evidenced in the bar chart race:

The bar chart race is the perfect visual format to tell these two stories. They both illustrate a significant change over time, but the compelling and almost hypnotic nature of the races are far more engaging than if we’d simply written about all the twists and turns in a simple, text-based format.

Visual content is more important than ever

As content creators, it is imperative to consider the visual elements of a piece of content at the very outset. Creating exceptional, spectacular visual content is no longer an option, but a necessity.

The adage from 1911 still holds true today, particularly in the age of social media and shareable content - a picture sometimes tells a story better than words alone ever could.