Critique: NYT unemployment graphics

To illustrate the horrible unemployment numbers announced today (“employers in the United States have shed about 3.6 million jobs since December 2007”), the New York Times presents a series of graphics:


We have a perfectly nice bar chart here: clear, legible, professionally done, all that. This chart tells us two (2) things: what month it is and how many jobs were lost. Surely there is additional info about this two-year stretch that would add depth and meaning (and potentially even yield an epiphany or two!).

One suggestion: The story says, “Manufacturers eliminated 207,000 jobs, more than in any year since 1982. The construction industry eliminated 111,000 jobs. And retailers, who were wrapping up their worst holiday shopping season in years, eliminated 45,000 jobs.” Segmenting each bar by color to represent the various sectors would show at a glance where the biggest losses were coming from.


Again, a perfectly nice fever chart. (I don’t mean to minimize the strong points of these two charts; they’re clear, junk-free and, I’m sure, accurate. But that’s why these folks got hired by the NYT and that’s what they get paid for.) Thing is, there’s much more that could be done here. What can we learn from this, aside from how high the unemployment rate has been over the last 20 years? Is there any other data set a designer could add to make this chart richer and more meaningful?

Another bit from the story: “‘This is a horror show we’re watching,’ said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, an economic research organization in Washington. ‘By every measure available — loss of employment and hours, rise of unemployment, shrinkage of the employment to population rate — this recession is steeper than any recession of the last 40 years, including the harsh recession of the early 1980s.'” [Note: the second sentence quoted here was removed from later versions of the story.]

Those all sound like interesting measures. Why not incorporate a series of sparklines to compare the trajectories of each of these trends with that of the unemployment numbers?


This timeline/bar chart, as you see, shows how unemployment rates have grown among various demographic groups. On the Times‘s site, the chart above is animated—we watch the arrows move from left to right. Fine, as far as it goes.

But it raises several questions for me: Why does this have to be animated (aside from making the project more multimedia-rific)? What purpose does the motion serve? And what is the point (no pun intended) of the arrowheads? Couldn’t this graphic be static and simplified even further without losing meaning? In fact, if you simplify (not dumb down — there’s a big difference) wherever you can, you then have more visual/conceptual scope for plotting additional data points… aka context.

The story itself lists dimensions that could be added to make these graphics truly masterful: “the country is trapped in a vortex of plunging consumer demand, rising joblessness and a deepening crisis in the banking system.”

Stay tuned; in upcoming weeks I’ll post my reworkings of these graphs to accord with my recommendations above.

Bureau of Labor Statistics report here.

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  • Chart 3 would be much more informative if it retained the date axis. We could then see how closely each of the four segments followed the trends of the overall economy in chart 2. There would be no need for mediatastic animation, nor even for arrowheads.

  • That’s so true, Jon. In fact, they could have obtained the figures in Chart 3 for each year back to 1990, and then plotted those as additional fever lines in various colors on Chart 2; that would show how each unemployment spike affects the demographic groups to different degrees.

Your thoughts?