The Arrangement of Marks Impacts Afforded Messages: Ordering, Partitioning, Spacing, and Coloring in Bar Charts

Racquel Fygenson, Steven L Franconeri, Enrico Bertini

Room: 109

2023-10-26T00:45:00ZGMT-0600Change your timezone on the schedule page
Exemplar figure, described by caption below
A 2x2 grid of bar chart arrangements. Top left: ORDER shows two bar charts. One sorted in ascending order, the other in descending order. Top right: PARTITIONS shows two bar charts. One has bars stacked into two columns, each consisting of three smaller bars. The other shows the bars side-by-side. Bottom left: COLOR V SPACING shows two bar charts. One is uniformly spaced, using color to group the bars, while the other is uniformly colored, using spacing to group the bars. Bottom right: SPACING shows two bar charts. One uniformly spaced, the other spaced to make two groups of bars.
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Perception & cognition, Methodologies, Human-subjects qualitative studies, Human-subjects quantitative studies, Charts, diagrams and plots, General public


Data visualizations present a massive number of potential messages to an observer. One might notice that one group's average is larger than another's, or that a difference in values is smaller than a difference between two others, or any of a combinatorial explosion of other possibilities. The message that a viewer tends to notice – the message that a visualization ‘affords’ – is strongly affected by how values are arranged in a chart, e.g., how the values are colored or positioned. Although understanding the mapping between a chart’s arrangement and what viewers tend to notice is critical for creating guidelines and recommendation systems, current empirical work is insufficient to lay out clear rules. We present a set of empirical evaluations of how different messages--including ranking, grouping, and part-to-whole relationships--are afforded by variations in ordering, partitioning, spacing, and coloring of values, within the ubiquitous case study of bar graphs. In doing so, we introduce a quantitative method that is easily scalable, reviewable, and replicable, laying groundwork for further investigation of the effects of arrangement on message affordances across other visualizations and tasks. Pre-registration and all supplemental materials are available at and, respectively.