3 reasons why I hate pretty graphs

People prefer the pretty guy over the uglier guy cos they like pretty things more than they like things that are right.

For over a decade I’ve been working in an area where the obsession has been about finding just the right type of pretty so that managers would pay attention to performance reporting and things would just all click.

Every year or two a new format of performance reporting would go through the approval mill and be approved as being officially prettier than the last one. The last framework is now thought of like an ex boyfriend, considered unattractive, thinking with a shudder “how could we have, this one is so much prettier

The word “pretty” is never used when people look at a new arrangement of graphs or tables on a screen or page. It is smarter, easier to read, cleaner, more modern. Pretty, basically but unsayable as an adjective.

Why the urge to prettify? I’ve noticed the thinking is about trying to be SO pretty that managers pay attention, that the graphs and tables would sashay into the room and BAZINGA all eyes go on the graphs.

The assumption is that managers don’t use performance measures etc because they find measures and graphs etc reeeeallly boooorrrriiing and the only way to get them to pay attention and do something worthwhile  is to gussy up measures and data, and slip knowledge in with something pretty. Sugaring the pill.

If the assumption is that managers aren’t using measures and data because it is boring and irrelevant, then it is entirely logical to make your communication and presentation of data and measures more user friendly. To follow solid design principles is not a bad thing. But the reason why i hate pretty graphs, as the blog title says, is because….

Whilst I’m a big fan of doing communication right.

I’m a MUCH bigger fan of doing the right communication.

The assumption that managers just aren’t using or thinking about data and measures cos they’re ugly, and therefore will when they are pretty is probably wrong. This is the first reason i hate pretty graphs…

1 There’s no use for graphs full stop

They just aren’t using them cos nobody uses them.

If you are trying to get managers to pay attention to data and measures then you don’t work in an organisation that does data based decision-making.



You work in a normal ordinary command and control organisation where decision making is separate from the work, where the further you are from work, the higher the pay and the more powerful and ignorant (in the literal sense of the word) is the decision making. There’s no call to use measures and data because that isn’t how management happens.

Whether it is day to day management of work, or changes to the design of work, if you ALREADY worked in an organisation that needed data to make decisions then they would ALREADY be paying attention and using measures and data.

Instead of managers disinterestedly or uncomprehendingly staring at performance reports they would be simply desperate to find out what was happening, tearing them out your hands.

There would be pull, in other words.

Pretty graphs are a cunning attempt at pushing data, when the opposite is the case, you need to create pull.

Managers need to pull data and measures because without it decisions cannot be made. If they can be made without data cos they’re being made cos the highest paid man wants it done, there’s no pull for data. The data is literally useless, because it cannot be used.

The problem with focussing on prettying up performance reports is that no attention is paid to WHAT is being prettified. When you’re prettying up what you’ve already got, then….

2 It’s trying to solve the wrong problem

This also means that you are not solving the right problem. If the wrong problem is “we’ve got ugly graphs” and that’s what you’re focussing on, then the right problem isn’t being addressed. The right problem is management that doesn’t need data to make decisions cos it uses other things to make decisions. Pretty graphs aren’t going to work cos graphs arent going to work, no matter what.

The temptation is to think that what’s needed is more TECHY graphs, like control charts and run charts with all the bells whistles and systemsy add-ons.

Things like THIS….

With all the added analytical tools like this

Stuff that could just hammer home rational decision making. Who could fail to see the light when presented with stuff like this?

This is something that won’t work because those silly wrong measures exist for a reason. Red/green scorecards and binary comparisons weren’t magicked up by foolish performance people because they didn’t know any better, but because bad performance measurement is  a symptom of bad management thinking.

Red/green, up/down, higher/lower, all forms of binary comparisons fit in with the thinking.

A scorecard that shows if a target has been hit or missed with a silly up or down thumb next to it or a smiley face is the answer to the question “have we hit our targets?”.

A control chart showing how much a service varies does NOT answer that question. It is an answer to a question that has not been asked.

This is not the problem you should be trying to solve. Giving managers control charts that answer systemsy questions is falling into the trap of giving things from ONE worldview, yours the systemsy performance type, to someone from another worldview, a manager in a normal ordinary command and control world.

They still have the questions and assumptions from their own worldview, the control chart will be understood through that worldview. The one that’s causing all the mischief that you don’t like or want.

So a pretty stupid graph or an ugly clever control chart aren’t the thing, so what IS then clever clogs? I don’t like pretty graphs because…

3 Pretty means finished means done

Producing pretty charts, either dumb-ass ones or clever ones, is a bad thing because if its pretty it can’t be messed about with. It is a finished product. Signed, sealed and delivered.

“Et, VOILA! Your monthly performance reports Sir, transcribed on vellum as you requested”

Pretty graphs are often the product of people like me, performance types, possibly the worst people to “report performance”. Cos reporting performance implies THREE types of people where there should only be one.

  1. the worker who does the work
  2. the performance type who measures it and
  3. the managerial type who is distant from the work hence needing a special performance report to tell them all about it.They get the pretty graph. When they get it, it is finished and done.

There is a way out of this, by removing the need to report TO someone, it removes the performance type and the managerial type. Now there’s just the worker who does the work, measuring the work, so they can improve the work.

They do [drum roll] THIS!…

This is a measure, in time series, that identifies true change using objective methods, IN THE WORK….

Graphs on a wall in the work. Not signed and sealed and delivered, but written on and annotated. Somebody marked the shift with marker pen. Arrows pointing to when things happened that made an impact, linking data and efforts to improve, creating learning about the work.

This is not a signed, sealed and delivered pretty graph sent away from the work.

This is a living thing used for a purpose. Not pretty, much better than that, useful and used.

These are the 3 reasons I don’t like pretty graphs.

  1. There’s no use for graphs full stop
  2. It’s trying to solve the wrong problem
  3. Pretty means finished means done.

Pretty graphs are an attempt to make an information radiator without anything to radiate.

Start UGLY. First measure the right thing, in the right way. Then build your information radiator.

This entry was posted in data, measures, statistics, systems thinking, thinking, vanguard method and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to 3 reasons why I hate pretty graphs

  1. Pingback: 3 reasons why I hate pretty graphs – ChewyChunks

  2. The System might have got you but it won't catch me says:

    Last week someone showed me a Performance graph projected onto a wall. It was colourful and had pretty up and down arrows also. It was also total shit.

    It was for the top brass and I was going to punch the wall to get the horrible thing to move away.

    I should let I go and let them carry on wasting their time


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Imagine that writ large. Lots and lots of meaningless pretty graphs, held up to be exemplars of good design.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Ooh, pressed send too soon.
      Like I was saying, imagine lots of these things, all around you cos that’s your JOB.


      • The System might have got you but it won't catch me says:

        If pretty graphs make the management happy (along with BRAG, up / down arrows coloured red and blue) then we should do them. If number of, percentage of, average of what ever EASY thing we can get from our ict system matters, then we do it. But let’s not call it performance. Department of Graphs Simply Hiding Intelligent Things. You know how we like acronyms in local government…..

        I feel your pain, feel your pain. I went ‘to the work’ Friday. Happiest day in months… Says it all really.


        • ThinkPurpose says:

          Isn’t it really odd that “going to the work” is such a RELIEF? I for some other reason was doing stuff over a month ago in the “work”, or “the real world”, and it was BRILLIANT. Zero bullshit, real staff doing real things with real clients. Genuinely I felt like I’d come up for air after being underwater housing my breath for years.


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