Good for Nothing

In his recent post outlining an upcoming talk he’ll be giving at OpenVis, Andy Kirk asks “How do you make ‘nothing’ visible?” Mr. Kirk puts forward a compelling question. I, myself have often wondered, what do we do if like the proverbial rich man we are in need of nothing? As a solution to this conundrum, I’d like to once again put forward the humble pie chart. The pie chart excels at showing nothing, while other graphical forms are stuck hopelessly showing you something.

But before we get to nothing, let’s start with a chart that truly is something. This being’s one year anniversary it’s seems appropriate that we commemorate it with a visual.



Our enterprising friend the pie has come though splendidly in this case where we have something to show. We can clearly see the portions of the past year that the site has been online, the number of days contained in that year as aided by the wedgelines, and with the addition of the scale, we see the months that were traversed for the year in question. This is unquestionably more than enough information to engross the information flaneur for a considerable time. You’ll not find many more data intense graphics out there.

But what if we’re faced with Andy Kirk’s perplexity and we need to make something out of nothing. Here again the pie is our sustentation.


Not only does the emptiness of pie chart accurately reflect the absence of data, it further enhances our understanding by forming the numerical digit used to represent nothing. While the void within the chart engages our visual channel, the character it contrives to forge, employs our verbal processing. As Garr Reynolds writes in his meritorious book Presentation Zen Design, to create messages that are more meaningful we need graphics “that target the viewers visual and verbal channel.” With both our verbal and visual channels telling us the same thing we get the reinforcement necessary to truly drive home nothing. No other chart form provides us with this innate advantage.

To reach to the information apogee we must sift through the data deserts, trudge over the analytical under-brush, navigate along the ocular seas, and scale the mathematical mountains… but that is not all. We must also be willing to tread to the edge of the aught abyss, and with our eyes on the pies, step forward and embrace the void.

Encoding an absence may seem like a difficult task to take on but as is now surely clear, if we put our minds to it, we can accomplish nothing.

This entry was posted on April 1, 2014.