Sparklines: Merging visual data with text

    March 20, 2006

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Problem is, a picture can also take up a lot of space, particularly on a web page. Leave it to Edward Tufte to come up with a solution.

Nobody is better than Tufte at helping designers and communicators understand how to use graphics to convey data and information. His book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” is a masterpiece, a coffee table book I have thumbed through to the point that the edges of paes are wearing out. Back in 2004-as part of the book “Beautiful Evidence” he was writing-Tufte proposed an idea for incorporating graphics as part of a block of text. He called the notion “sparklines:”

Sparklines are wordlike graphics, with an intensity of visual distinctions comparable to words and letters…Why not construct datagraphics that work at the resolution and intensity of detail of routine typography? Thus, the idea of sparklines: small, intense, wordlike graphics.

Joe Gregorio took the idea and ran with it. He created a web-based utility that lets you input a series of comma-separated values from 1 to 100 in order to generate a sparkline you can add to any online text. To give it a shot, I entered the numbers of repeat visitors to this blog beginning on Monday, March 13 and ending yesterday, March 19.

Very nifty, and useful for communicators to consider as an alternative to large graphs. Tufte’s examples cover medical information, and Jon Udell (whose blog post led me to Gregorio’s tool) has tried a number of approaches to using sparklines to display monthly citations of LibraryLookup in since January 2003.

The applications of this tool should be evident. The eyes of communicators producing online annual reports should be lighting up, but annual reports are far from the only use for sparklines. This marriage of text and graphics has huge potential, and I hope to see them appear in a variety of communications.

You’re not limited to using Gregorio’s online service, by the way; the source code for the application is available so you can run it from your own server.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.