Dear Washington Post,
Making a good infographic is hard. You have to begin with a comprehensive, consistent, valid set of data (the info) and rely on skilled design (the graphic) to illustrate whatever narratives and insightsâ€”which are often either subtle or seemingly contradictoryâ€”are hiding in the numbers. People who do it well get paid a lot of money. The firm I work for makes them, so I know first-hand. Youâ€™ve done it well yourself from time to time, so I know you understand, too.
Speaking as a sympathetic friend, then, I really have to tell you: your snapshot of major theater venues in the Washington region is more than a bit of a mess.
Letâ€™s look at your data first. Is it comprehensive, consistent, and valid? Iâ€™ll give you one out of three. Youâ€™ve clearly done your research (Iâ€™d expect nothing less), so the data you do have seems to be accurate.
But is it comprehensive? Hardly. Youâ€™re missing easily sixty other institutions that ought to be included in any reasonable analysis, if not more than that. I donâ€™t expect you to capture them ALL, mind youâ€¦ but you really ought to get a lot closer to 100% if you want to be reflective of the entire region. (Donâ€™t have the resources to be fully comprehensive? Then at least pick a more representative sample. Youâ€™ve captured only the largest institutions in the region.)
And is it consistent? Your infographicâ€™s title suggests youâ€™re comparing venues, but a few of the institutions on your list arenâ€™t venues at all. Youâ€™ve blurred the line between venues and theater companies, which is really problematic.
Next, letâ€™s look at your graphics. Youâ€™ve got a timeline that indicates both the year each institution was established and its size, and youâ€™ve got a chart that lists a variety of information about each institution.
The timeline I find particularly baffling. What, if anything, were you trying to reveal by comparing size to year of establishment? Thereâ€™s nothing particularly enlightening about this element of the graphic at all: no trends, no reversals of trends, no correlationsâ€”nothing. If this is a â€œsnapshot,â€ Washington Post, itâ€™s a really awkwardly-posed portrait, I must say.
The chart, by contrast, suffers from a major apples-and-oranges problem. Alongside several raw data points, youâ€™ve listed what I can only call â€œimpressionsâ€â€”the changes that have been made in each institutionâ€™s recent history and the nature of their programming. The information is highly subjective in both cases, which undermines the legitimacy of the infographic (and, in addition, dilutes the data).
The chart also includes one calculated data point: the percentage of each institutionâ€™s budget that comes from government funding. Finally, I would say, a potentially interesting narrative buried in the chart. What I wish is that youâ€™d done a great deal more of this.
For instance, using only the data youâ€™ve got in your chart, you could have calculated the percentage of each institutionâ€™s budget that goes to the top-salaried workerâ€™s income. You could have compared average attendance to the number of full-time employees, too, to try to find a correlation there. Those are missed opportunities.
But whatâ€™s really disappointing is the data you didnâ€™t collect: the number of tickets sold by each institution in the previous 12 months; the numbers of unpaid interns (or staff) supporting each institution; the salaries of the lowest-paid workers at each institution. You could have probably done a lot more. Think of what your readers might have learned!
Hereâ€™s just one idea. For a good while now, thereâ€™s been a healthy dialogue about the ratio between the highest-paid workers at arts institutions and the lowest-paid workers. Would that have been hard to dig up? Perhaps it would haveâ€¦ but I can promise you that your readers would have found that ratio highly compelling. (Wellâ€¦ those who arenâ€™t in positions of power at big theater institutions, anyway.) And isnâ€™t serving your readers what youâ€™re really trying to do?
Yours in data visualization,