The need for sleep
Sir Ken Robinson: We need to transform education

When bar charts go bad

Environmental Graffiti posted a bar chart suitable for entry into the Bar Chart Hall of Shame.* I made a list of at least ten ways to improve the chart, but it's more fun to read your comments below. Questions for you: (1) How many ways could you improve this chart? And (2) how many ways can you misinterpret the chart's meaning at first glance? Please share your comments about the quality of the chart in terms of signal vs. noise, contrast/affinity, color, area distortion, labeling, etc. (Although, since the comparison is just on price, perhaps a simple table would lead to more clarity (and less snickering).

Click for larger size. (Image (c) of Environmental Graffiti)

And speaking of chart junk, Seth Godin had some interesting things to say about charts here and here. And the very cool blog Junk Charts had a response to some of Seth's ideas.

*I'm assuming this was intentional; EG is an interesting site.



I personaly love the comment of click for "Larger Size".


Here are some answers of a design layman:

I would use a small of countries in the chart. Comparing cities like New York, Shanghai and Houston to nation states is definitely not a good thing. I would either use cities or countries, not both.

The world map behind the grid is unnecessary and can confuse people. The title already explains that the chart refers to prices in several parts of the world.

The condom shape of the bars may be seen as funny, but it may also distract and even offend people. As people see this graph for the first time, they may get the erroneous impression that there is a correlation between the price of condoms and the size of penises worldwide. I am sure the Irish and the Dutch would argue there is such a correlation, though. To avoid tackiness and ambiguity, in this case regular bars may be better.

With regard to the colors of the bars, I would go for one color. Why would green mean cheap, yellow regular, and red expensive? I am not sure everyone will associate these colors with the indicated price levels.


Condoms in Ireland are red hot? Not too sure what the intention of the colour was, the map in the background is mad distracting, there are two many examples on the list, the lines and the numbers are all unnecessary noise....
probably just a few condoms would have proved the point.

Jorge Camoes

These are my 13 suggestions:
- Remove colors (they provide no additional information);
- Remove background (irrelevant);
- Start the Y axis at zero;
- remove the "$" char;
- Less grid lines (steps of $5);
- use a bar chart, not column;
- Use a real bar, not a condom;
- Add source, date;
- Change title to "Condom Prices in some" countries/cities;
- Do not mix cities and countries;
- Use a color without explicit meaning;
- Avoid vertical alignment in x axis labels
- Use a better font


IMO the chart needs a subtitle. because else you don't know what you're comparing. I had to follow 2 links to find out that we are comparing the price of a durex elite 12-pack. I still don't know how conversion to USD was achieved. current conversion rates, PPPs?

I think it would be more telling to compare the price of a single condom.

comparing countries and cities is not such a good idea. it's weird that there are US and non-US cities, and then non-US countries. why not add states to the mix? if they want to keep that many datapoints they should consider using cities all the way (i.e. Paris instead of France, etc. )

the map in the background is not informative and affects visibility. same opinion for the condom shape or the unneccesary use of colours for the bars.
I'm not saying they should be removed from the graph, I'm just saying that the author should be aware that the first thing people will see by viewing the graphs is funny condoms on a map, not that condoms are cheapest in shangai. so if it's the desired effect, why not.

i fully agree to your last comment, a simple table, which is how it all started, would work better:
(this table is not exempt of problems but that may be for another post).


The biggest problem for me is the misuse of the metaphors/images: the condom together with the map of the world. First of all: they don't relate to the meaning of the chart: pricing.

For me (and much of the Western world) these images (combined!) will trigger connotations and associations like: STDs, health, HIV, AIDS, unequal distribution, (in)availability of anti-conceptives, and the like.

So after having conceived all these mental images, one reads the title and the gimmicky effect of the condoms as bars is completely lost (at least to me) and it just becomes really bad taste.

But it doesn't end there: the use of colors gives the whole thing a biased feel (everybody knows things cost more in Europe - apples and oranges) and the stretching gives it an awkward perspective: especially the biggest and smallest 'bars'.

And the data! It's a mess! The price of what? 1 condom, 6 condoms, 24 condoms? I am Dutch and no way I'm paying 10€ (~15,5 dollar) for a condom! States and countries from all over the globe are huddled side by side: it tells you nothing.

Tssss.. shame on the makers of this eyesore!


> - Avoid vertical alignment in x axis labels

Easy. Put the places on the Y axis. The much shorter price text can go on the X axis and use $0, $5, $10, etc. divisions.

Jon Peltier

I like the line right under the chart:

"Click for larger size."


The size of the condoms is not right - the longest one is dubble the with of the smallest. Taken Shanghai 4,5 as a fixed image - Ireland seems to be around 36.

Christian vd Berge


You can do maps in excel.

Furthermore you can download free/cheap maps wich you can color by hand (using ppt for instance) or in flash, so you have a more interactive map. Just Google and you will find ;)


There is two more problem with the impression the chart gives

It says "Condom Prices" where it is Durex Elite condoms. I don't know how it is around the world but haven't heard about Durex in Sweden for ages. Checked some Swedish site and they was hard to find this Elite. When I found it on one site I realize they was around 20-25 % more expensive than the one we also can see in our everyday food store. It's hard to compare prices as you want to have something that are the same but prices can differ just because it's standard in one country and something rare in another.

Then it gives an impression that is cheaper for people in Shanghai than in Ireland to buy condoms. But is it? How much is 4,5 or 15 $ of an income after you paid all necessary thing (tax, housing and so on)? Maybe 18 $ is les for someone in Ireland than 4,5 $ for someone in Shanghai. (Though the difference between German/Belgium/Austria and Netherlands is interesting)


I think that you are missing the point. The graph got your attention and much larger distribution in the net *because* of the tacky use of condoms instead of bars.

Considering that the intended audience is probably mostly US-centric, the mix of countries and cities does not hurt, but adds to the appeal of the graph.

I would probably only drop the map background and make clear what does the cost refer to (packet of 12?)

Rick Altman

To answer Jago's query: Take a look at SmartDraw ( for a good selection of maps in their library.

As for the chart, they simply don't look like condoms. They look more like vertically-distored baby bottles...

Damian Cugley

When comparing prices around the world, a more useful measure might be something like how many days does someone have to work to earn the price of a pack of condoms, or some similar measure of affordability, like condoms priced in terms of the cost of bread or beer or something.

Jason Yip

I like Stephen Few's response regarding Seth's "No Bar Charts" rule:

Leo Piccioli

First, there is clearly a problem with scales or currencies. What would happen to world population if a single condom costed between $4.5 and $18?

Colors don't add value.

Using a condom for each column does not either. I would use a standard column.

The world behind, does not add value either. Even worse, it seems to have been done by some China-centric or Australia-centric individual. If I see Africa in the left of the map I would try to infere something from that (and I do not think there is a reason)

The condoms not only get longer, but wider, leading me to assume the difference are larger than in reality (surface ratios are the second power of what should be)

I would change the title to something more appealing: "Sex in Shanghai can save you some bucks" (although in Argentina condoms are at USD0.30 ea)

Mixing cities and countries... makes no sense.

Too much data...


I think these comments are overly critical (which I guess was invited by the post), so I'd like to play devils advocate:

- The condoms instantly grab attention and help draw in readers. Sex sells, and comments saying this might be offensive ignore the fact that the author was probably more sensitive to their audience than you are.

- The world map may reduce legibility, but it adds interest, and context to the casual reader. Without having to read a word a browsing reader instantly knows this is something comparing facts from around the world.

The graph is _far_ from perfect (what's up with the colours?), but trying to force all data presentations into a regimented and boring bar graph form will not help this site (and this story) gain readers.

It would be interesting to do a study to see readership conversions using this graph vs. a more traditional graph.
I think you'd be able to engage and retain more readers with this presentation.
The data-legibility compromises are probably well worth the payoff.

The comments to this entry are closed.