StATS: Three dimensional bar and pie charts (February 21, 2006)

I often get asked to review research papers and posters that people here at the hospital produce, and I am always glad to do so. Sometimes these papers and posters have me listed as a co-author, so I have even more incentive to do a careful review.

Once in a while, a paper or poster will have a graphical presentation of data that includes a bar chart or pie chart that includes a fake three dimensional dimension that exists solely to make the data look more impressive. This is something I always discourage. The three dimensional effect almost always makes it more difficult to read numbers off of the chart and to make comparisons. A two dimensional chart works much better.

I did have a stock talk that I gave on this topic, but it has been lost to time and I need to find a way to resuscitate it. Several sections of this venerable talk have been repackaged into the following web pages:

but more work needs to be done.

A very nice beginners guide on how to layout tables and graphs properly is

These authors also have a nice website:

In the meantime, here are some web resources that decry the use of fake three dimensional effects.

And here is a dissenting voice, of sorts.


All of these sites pay homage to Edward Tufte, who has made a very persuasive case for good statistical graphics in the books he has published:

There's a second edition of the 1983 classic that has come out, but I don't have it yet. Dr. Tufte is also working on a new book, Beautiful Evidence, but I have no details about it.

It's also worthwhile to visit Dr. Tufte's web site.

Finally, Edward R. Tufte has written the definitive critique of PowerPoint

which is not relevant to this weblog entry, but I can't resist the temptation to bash Powerpoint, and bash it again. Still I did offer equal time to a defender of PowerPoint.

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