Unconventional treatments of area plots

Area plots are unusual in research survey reports, but when they do appear they often seduce graphic designers into creating unconventional varieties. Consider this plot from DLA Piper Compliance 2017 [pg. 6]. Its most prominent irregularity is that the circles are not arranged in order of size. This conjures up depictions of the planets of our solar system! Further, the colors chosen are not meaningful, but they are distracting.

The area of each circle is proportional to the percentage of one of the seven job titles. A more customary layout would present the circles in declining size from the left or in ascending size to the right. Shall we call this an imaginative array?

KL Gates GCDisruption 2018 [pg. 8] also makes poor use of the area technique: the three percentages are too similar for the eye to pick up differences from the area of the circles. Worse, the circles are not aligned at the bottom so that readers can better detect differences in their areas. The firm could have opted to present this simple data in prose or with a small table.

It is hard enough for most people to discern differences in the area of similar circles, let alone when the area is represented by an object as unfamiliar as proportional bottles. Nevertheless, Reed Smith Lifesciences 2015 [pg. 10] chose a visualization technique that did exactly that. Furthermore, the percentages at the top are washed out.

Morrison Foerster GCsup 2017 [pg. 10] also chose an area plot even though there is not much difference between the areas of these circles. Plus the dual levels are very complex to understand. Compounding both effects is a very elaborate explanation below the plot.

Area plots and conventional treatments

Those who design the graphics in research survey reports like to mix in some plots that convey their data by the relative size of an object. Size here actually means the area of the object, and the object is typically a circle.  Clifford Chance AsiaMA 2017 [pg. 6] offers a plain vanilla example, just proportional circles, no colors, visible data arranged from largest to smallest. The area of the left circle almost doubles the area of the circle to its right — just as 48.7\% is almost twice 26.4\%.

Pinsent Masons TMT 2016 [pg. 20] also arranges the circles in declining order of area. The labels underneath with extender lines show one technique for including additional information. Unlike Clifford Chance, which left the circles uncolored, Pinsent Masons shaded them grey and switched the font color to white. The design feature, the curvy line on the left in the shape of a reverse “L,” is in the snippet to show the relative size of the area plot and its location at the bottom right of the page (from the location of the page number).

The final example, from DLA Piper RE 2017 [pg. 10], has four less-than-conventional features. Fanciful cityscapes show through in the larger circles like a watermark. Second, the plot unnecessarily outlines the larger circle; you should want readers to focus on the relative sizes of the inner, darker circles. Third, most readers will fix their eyes first on the prominent “1”, “2”, and “3” rather than on the meaningful percentages below them in parentheses — which do not even have a percentage symbol. Finally, the graphic truncates the circles at the bottom, which seems particularly odd since the area of the circles is meant to convey the differences in percentages between the cities.