West Elm is working hard to promote fair trade labor across the world. Their latest catalog features stories and data about this movement they are leading. Let’s take a look at how they are presenting data in this context.


On the left page here, the patchwork-like arrangement, vibrant colors, and textures captured in the photos looks like an artisanal quilt and lends it a sense of close-knit, bustling community. On the right page, a focal photo framed by white space invites us in for a closer look, as if we are looking through a window and entering a separate space. Beneath the photo is some text and a data graphic about their mission. Let’s zoom in on that data…


The message is clear: West Elm is making progress in fair trade. But the details are not.

Along the x-axis, we have years. These run from 2014 to 2020, which is the future. Yet, aside from the gap in year markers, there is no visualization that the 2020 data point is a goal and not yet reality; the solid line and solid fill underneath the graph suggests existing data at first glance. A dotted line or a paler color would help to show that this is, in truth, the planned trajectory for their work in fair trade operations. Here’s an alternative that makes the projection clearer:


The greater point of confusion for me, though, appears with the bubbles above each datum. Because the label for the number of countries is closer to the circular data marker, we assume that the graph is about the number of countries containing fair trade certified factories (proximity implies relationship). Scrutinize the y-axis distance between the points, however, and you’ll see that the y-axis actually represents the number of factories, not countries.

One way to solve this without dramatically changing the design would be to swap the positions of the factory and country counts, and make the bubbles paler so they don’t compete for our attention.


But before we continue, it’s worth making a few points (pun intended) about data types and their representation. Line graphs technically are used to represent continuous data, rather than categorical data (which can be better represented by bar charts). This is because the line that connects the dots implies continuity of that data; this graph is suggesting that on October 11, 2015, there were something like 7.8 factories. Which doesn’t make sense, of course, because we don’t count factory elevator installations (or fair trade certification of factories) in fractions.

By correctly showing the data in bars, however, the sense of growing efforts “up and to the right” is compromised. Whether they are thick or thin, loosely spaced or tightly packed, five bars isn’t many. The at-a-glance effect is much weaker than the filled line chart that West Elm modeled. Given the context, the West Elm data visualizers broke the bar graph/line graph usage rule intelligently. Fair trade…off!

So let’s return to the filled line graph. Is there a way to make a graph like that even more legible and digestible?

Yes. All the tiny text and the bubbles aren’t necessary. The title can be adjusted… perhaps “Fair Trade Factories Supported by West Elm” for West Elm’s graph. Admittedly, this option loses the impact conveyed by the word “progress,” but I would strongly consider using passive voice in this title, to help frame the graph with factories as the main subject.

When the title is changed to highlight the information of primary interest, we no longer need the “factories” label above each datum. Here’s what this could look like in my example:


This may not look as delightful as West Elm’s example, but it’s more user-friendly. The original’s bubble shapes, though engaging, pull the eye away from the key information: the number of factories. Instead, I’ve used differences in text color, scale, and weight to help distinguish the types of information.

Overall, West Elm’s graph is pretty well designed. It doesn’t clutter the eye with excessive axis tick marks, gridlines, or labels. It is primarily in several shades of one blue, an excellent choice for creating colorblind-friendly data visualizations that also ties in with the photography.

And of course, let’s take a moment to recognize the story it tells. West Elm’s progress to date and its goal of supporting more fair trade factories by 2020 is pretty fantastic.

If you had to redesign West Elm’s graphic, how might you do this? Can you find a more engaging way to show the information that is also easier to use than the original?