Icons in bar plots

Most students of plots reject icons as stand-ins for bars or columns. They distract readers from the figures that matter. Some examples of the practice reinforce the objection.

To its credit, Dykema Gossett MA 2017 [pg. 5] plucks an appropriate icon for growth, but the plant icons nevertheless divert the reader’s attention from the two important numbers. Moreover, it is hard to know the y-axis scale.

DLA Piper RE 2017 [pg. 6] borrows its icons from the world of finance. To be precise, this graphic appears to size the iconic bull and bear in proportion to the percentages they represent.

Pinsent Masons Infratech 2017 [pg. 29] invokes a different role for icons — not as a stand-in for columns but as a pictorial version of column labels. This fillip contributes nothing but complexity.

KL Gates GCDisruption 2017 [pg. 13] has nine icons to the right of the 14-bar plot (The snippet captures only part of the page-tall plot.) Not only do the icons not match the bars, five of them have dotted borders and four have solid borders. If no distinction is drawn, it is superfluous to vary the borders.

Reed Smith Lifesciences 2015 [pg. 17] scattered random icons of integrated circuits around an array of area-circles. Confusion is the likely effect.

Lists, little used but flexible

Lists appear infrequently, an underutilized technique in survey reports. Yet they summarize key points, they break them up and present them better than blocks of text, create an open feel to a page, and allow aesthetic touches such as the bullets (shape, color, size, spacing), the indenting before and after the bullet, and the spacing between items. Here are examples of some of these variations.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Crisis 2013 [pg. 7] uses small blue circles and no indenting from the header. One line fits between each list item.

Morrison Foerster MA 2016 [pg. 4] also uses a simple, small circle as the bullet but indents the items two or three letters from the preceding main text.

Seyfarth Shaw RE 2017 [pg. 11] uses white bullets and indenting (note that the yellow shading is not from the original; it uses white typeface as in the bottom item). Here, too, the designer reduced the typeface for the list items and nestled the bullets close to the item text.

Dykema Gossett Auto 2012 [pg. 4] chose square blue boxes for the bullets and seems to have left more room between each item than do the previous three examples.

Page texture (Part II of background color)

Miller Canfield AutoCars 2018 [pg. 43] applies a background of dark blue, which means the page needs a white or light color for the typeface.

Thompson Hine Innovation 2018 [pg. 4] also applies a blue texture, although not as dark as Miller Canfield’s shade, and also includes what look to be icons of file folders.

On a divider page, Allen Overy Innovative 2012 [pg. 13] uses a grey hue for the whole page, behind an enormous “1” in green.

Carlton Fields CA 2013 [pg. 12] puts a golden border or background behind parts of its plots. This one reveals the hint of the texture on the left side and extending into part of the top and bottom.

Page text (background color)

Another design decision for law firms introduces on report pages background color. We will refer to the background as texture. Quite often the cover and the back page have texture, but we looked for examples of it inside the report itself (other than divider pages). Sometimes, the effect and design of texture becomes more apparent when you see multiple pages and how the texture varies by color, portions of pages, or locations of color.

Clyde Co Parental 2015 [pg. 2] shades most of the page in cobalt blue, leaving only the top margin and a sliver on the side white.

Brodies Firm Housebuilding 2015 [pg. 1] places a colored rectangle (a gradient color no less) behind the plot, probably both to emphasize the data and to create aesthetic appeal. Note how much stuff fills just this portion of a single page!

Carlton Fields CA 2015 [pg. 31] highlights a quotation with a khaki green rectangle.

As a final example, Berwin Leighton ArbDocuments 2013 [pg. 3] backgrounds the entire page with light blue.

Additional detail to highlight data in a plot or table

Careful attention to the central message of a plot or table can lead a firm to drill down or annotate that part of the data. Various techniques direct the reader to a key point. Here are three examples.

Dykema Gossett MA 2017 [pg. 10] calls attention to China with the text box and mini-bar plot inside it, and the text tells readers more about the country.

Carlton Fields CA 2013 [pg. 12] outlines the most important data in red braces and lines and also adds in the right margin “> than 50%,” thereby highlighting the most significant findings.

Herbert Smith CorpDebt 2018 [pg. 8] breaks out the 30 percent “yes” slice into six sub-slices. If the firm had not done that it could have made the donut plot a seven-slice plot, but doing so would have muted the more detailed insights from exploding out the “yes” details.

Free-text comments to “other” responses can be insightful

If respondents check “Other” as a response to a multiple-choice question, the law firm might that sponsored the survey might take the extra step in its report to list or summarize what the respondents filled in. Mostly, however, firms do not provide that additional detail. Still, examples surfaced from three reports, each with a different treatment of “other” comments.

Davies Ward Barometer 2010 [pg. 23] categorizes a number of comments and lists them in bullet fashion. The snippet is partial, because there are three more comments on the next page.

After its pie chart, Norton Rose Infrastructure 2016 [pg. 2] states some of the comments from respondents in the 9% “Other” slice.

DLA Piper RE 2017 [pgs. 4-5] provides what the firm calls “Verbatims”. We show only three of the total of seven. It is possible that the firm edited the comments so that they read smoothly and grammatically.

Research reports strongly favor writing about or plotting the most common responses to multiple-choice questions. They like reporting the highest percentages of answers. But sometimes interesting nuances or new ideas appear as write-in comments. A report that does not disclose permit readers to peek into the “other” comments misses an opportunity to broaden the range of findings.

Variations from convention in bar and column plots

We continue our observations of bar or column plots that vary elements from the conventional standard. Littler Mendelson Employer 2013 [pg. 9] uses a color gradient in the bars. It also includes a superfluous line for the bottom axis, but does a nice job nice fitting the axis labels (rather than angling them or running them alongside or in the bars). The gap between the tallest column and the question seems wide and is a result of the y-axis scale maxing at 100% but the tallest percentage is only 87.

Dykema Gossett MA 2016 [pg. 15] places its plot in a table. Also unusual is carrying the percentages to the hundredths position, which many would criticize as false precision\index{false precision}. We also point out the redundant percentages along the bottom, the unnecessary horizontal line between the bottom two responses and the visual complexity of four different colors (a dark blue title, white in the middle, light blue in the bottom row, and a fourth shade for the bars). The final oddity is the staple over the percentages along the bottom.

Morrison Foerster GCsUp 2017 [pg. 7] designed this bar chart circled as a polar presentation. Each bar starts at noon and extends clockwise in proportion to its percentage. Also worth mentioning is that the firm chose to combine ratings of 8, 9 or 10 as “very important”, which produce the percentages, and explained that consolidation in the grey rectangle below the plot.

A fourth example, from Perkins Coie VirtualReality 2016 [pg. 10], shows a plot with no axis on either side. It also states the long labels of the bars under the bars.

Text that describes plots: three variations from the standard arrangement

The most typical arrangement by which reports describe plots places the explanatory text immediately before the plot. Usually, the text does little more than replay the data in the plot. Here are three examples that diverge from the convention.

Our first example, from Ashurst GreekNPL 2017 [pg. 4], follows the standard pattern. Notably, however, the text also describes in the same paragraph the plot to the right of the one snipped.

Thompson Hine Innovation 2018 [pg. 3] varies the conventional pattern. It starts with a preamble before the plot, but inserts a short discussion to the right of the plot.

We see a third variation in Technology Law GDPR 2017 [pg. 8] . Here the report places some explanatory text above the plot and the remainder immediately below the plot.

234 law-firm research surveys located so far

In late November of 2017 we wrote about the law-firm research surveys we had identified at that time. Since then, we have added many more to the collection.  As of this writing, the set has reached 234 surveys involving 64 law firms. Of those surveys, U.S. law firms accounted for just under half, followed by about half as many by U.K. firms and a scattering of firms from sources: Canada (18), Israel, more than one country, Vereins, or firms that straddle the U.S. and the U.K (“USUK” in the plot that follows). The plot shows the numbers and distribution for the firms.

At this point, we know of 30 firms that have dipped their toe into the water of research surveys only one time. As to the promiscuous surveyors, six firms have done so in double digits (more than 10 surveys), with a single firm (CMS) accounting for 20 surveys.

The plot that follows shows an increasing number of research surveys each year since approximately 2012. Not that all research surveys by law firms have been identified, far from it. Nevertheless, 2017 has so far surfaced at least 55 surveys, and 2018 has generated at least 15 in the first three months, a pace that would exceed the 2017 total.


Bar plots and some variations from conventional treatments

By far the most common genre of plot, bar (or column plots) probably outnumber all other types by a factor of three. Most of these plots are workmanlike and unmemorable. Some of them, however, utilize techniques that designers of plots should consider for their arsenal.

We start with Davies Ward Barometer 2007 [pg. 29] because of its conventional treatment of the bar plot. The labels for each bar are on the left axis, the bars are sorted from high to low (top to bottom), and the percentages are given at the right end of each bar. Some of the elements of this plot that are not standard, however, include the black outline of each bar, the tick marks at the base that look like staples around the label, and the choice to cut off responses under 4%.

The next plot, from Freshfields Bruckhaus Crisis 2013 [pg. 10], centers each segmented bar at zero, a neutral position. It also uses colors for the segments and embedded percentages to convey the data collected by the survey. Note, too, that the plot has no y-axis line.

KL Gates GCDisruption 2017 [pg. 6] chose to represent negative values, decreasing percentages, as a different color bar (purple), located in the lower right, with a space between it and the positive values. This technique is confusing. It would have been better to present the negatives on the left side of zero, as the preceding Freshfields Bruckhaus plot does.

DLA Piper RE 2017 [pg. 8] introduces several techniques. First, the designer places the labels of the bars within the bars, sometimes even stretching them outside to the right of the bar. Second, the firm summarizes the key point of the plot in the first bullet on the right and adds more context in the second bullet. Third, the explanation in the second bullet has a footnote regarding its source. Fourth, unlike most bar plots that put the percentage or number at the end of the bar, this one stacks them flush right.