Case Study: How Baby Boomers Describe Themselves

If you search for bad infographics, you’ll regularly come up with this one from (now about Baby Boomers and HR professionals:

Something isn’t right with those percentages

The reason why is two-fold.  First, the percentages add up to over 100%, indicating multiple answers were possible.  Second, the colors do not seem proportional.  There was likely a good meaning designer behind this visualization, because of the rest of the infographic is rather pleasant.

Alright, let’s jump into the full rubric now:


The point of the visualization is to highlight the differences between how Baby Boomers perceive themselves and how Human Resources professionals view Baby Boomers.  This is measured on five different indicators, which are contrasted side-by-side.   The technique for representing this are two generic stick-figure silhouettes, with it colored to represent the percentages for the five different attributes.  At the bottom, there is a also a lot of text explaining what Baby Boomers should do to compensate for these differences in perception.

Explanation of data

The dataset is rather straight forward.  There are two sets of five percentages indicating whether Boomers are perceived as Leaders, Willing to Learn, Tech-Savvy, People-Savvy, or Creative.  These two sets are contrasted with each other.  Because we have five values, we have five dimensions to represent with just two values for each of them.

It is relatively safe to assume that the 6,361 individuals surveyed were allowed to select more than one attribute.  This is not noted, which leads to some misleading numbers.  The left side of the image sums to 243%, while the right side sums to 162%.  So, even if we ignore the fact that the percentages are over 100%, so that compounds the problematic comparison further.  We need to displays the values in a much clearer way.

Recommendation 1: Since each individual attribute is capable of going to 100%, the visualization should reflect this potential maximum.

Explanation of visualization techniques

This data visualization attempts to use a modified pie chart essentially.  On a graphic like this, we are trained to equate color with proportional values.   It appears the creator wanted to visualize things as parts of a whole, and that everything would equal 100%.  We could think that was an innocent mistake that was made treating the percentages as integers (thus overflowing the 100%) only looking at the left side of the image.  On the right side,  we see that this is not the case.

17% > 44%. Wait, what?

This is where the graphic completely loses the reader.  The purple, representing 44%, is significantly smaller than the aqua 17%.  Either there was a typo with the numbers, a change in values, or someone just wanted to make boomers look a lot more creative than they actually were.

Recommendation 2: Since we have multiple percentages, we should not use a single pie-chart like method for visualizing the data.

Another theory is that someone just wasn’t paying attention to the numbers.  There’s a similar visualization that this site generated on millennials, and it is just as misleading.

Only slightly better

Seemingly, sometimes, pretty colors just win.

Effectiveness of the visualization

This visualization struggles greatly to meet its objective, since the coloring and percentages are misleading.  The reader is only able to glean meaning by comparing the numerical values for each category.  The only thing going for this visualization is that at least they used the same colors on each side of the graphics to represent the five dimensions.

The reality of this visualization is that almost any other technique would have done a better job of accurately representing the data.  The previous recommendation already stated going away from the pie-chart means of representing the data, so no need to repeat that recommendation.

Integrity of the visualization

As I mentioned earlier, the representations of the numbers and the height are completely skewed.  The right side of the visualization only represents two-thirds as many percent (as much as that makes sense to say) as the left side.  The height of each segment within the stick figure is out of proportion within each stick figure and across each one.  For example, look at the head of each stick-figure Boomer.

40% > 55%. Huh?

The left side, at 40%, occupies the whole head, while on the right side, at 55%, it doesn’t even cover the whole head.  As soon as someone begins looking at the image, their sense of reality gets distorted.

Recommendation 3:   All numbers need to be on the same scale and proportion for both sides of the visualization.


Overall, the design of the infographic is actually not that bad.  The color palette could run into some issues with black and white printing or color-blindness.  In its full color, it is captivating and draws attention to the center graphic.  We only run into problems with the graphic when when we stop to read it.

There is something of  value at the bottom of the chart.  It’s the text that provides tips to Baby Boomers on how to overcome the stereotypes.  That is something of real value.  These conclusions are based on the differences in the five dimensions.  This is useful information.

These help! That’s good stuff.

I actually like that text enough that I’m not even going to bother trying to change it.  Those are clear direct actions that someone can take.

If the reader gives up trying to divine meaning from the images, and decides to read the text, there might actually be something useful here.


This is definitely meant for a mass audience–Baby Boomers.  There is also specific niche market that would find it interesting–hiring managers and HR professionals.  This graphic does have the challenge of being interesting to both audiences.

Because the design (prior to reading) is done well, it should be able to draw attention to it for both of these audiences.  The text is the only thing that saves it for either audience.

Overall, it is an interesting comparison because it addresses a real problem faced by hiring managers, HR, and Baby Boomers.  The problems faced by Baby Boomers are of interest to all of these groups.

How Baby Boomers Describe Themselves – Fixed

First, let me recap the recommendations from the analysis section:

  1. Since each individual attribute is capable of going to 100%, the visualization should reflect this potential maximum.
  2. Since we have multiple percentages, we should not use a single pie-chart like method for visualizing the data.
  3. All numbers need to be on the same scale and proportion for both sides of the visualization.

This was actually the smallest set of recommendations to date out of all the case studies.  This is mainly attributed to the fact that other than the stick figures, the rest of the visualization was actually well done, and even the color scheme wasn’t that bad.

First, I took a simple look at the attributes on a couple of bar graphs to stoke some ideas.

Sketch 1 – A clean horizontal bar chart. Not bad.

This isn’t that bad to begin with.  The biggest strength this has is that you are able to clearly see the differences between each of the traits as the two values are plotted right next to each other.

Sketch 2 – This is actually pretty good.  Go bar charts!

The vertical bars in Sketch 2 actually work much better than the horizontal ones in Sketch 1.  If this was a technical journal, I would be done at this point.  Either bar chart in Sketch 1 or 2 would be more than sufficient.  However, the audience on this data visualization was mass media, as Baby Boomers would be targeted.  So, since it’s mass media, it has to be more interesting than a simple bar chart.

Those two bar charts did give me a good feel for the data.  I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use a waffle chart lately, so I thought since we were talking percentages, this would be a good time to experiment with the waffle chart.

Final Sketch – Waffle Chart for the win! I really like how this one came out.

YOWZA! That’s a fine looking data visualization.  You can clearly see the side-by-side comparison of where HR professionals and Baby Boomers differ since it is center-aligned.  The colors work in black-and-white, or color-blind.  The amount of data-ink is minimized.

Most importantly, it’s interesting to look at, and could drop that right into the middle of that infographic.

In designing it, I was not sure about how to make sure it was clear how the waffle chart was to be read, although I do think they are common enough that most people would understand them intuitively.  I wrote one line under the title as a descriptor (perhaps too small) saying:

The colored portion of each 10×10 square represents the percent of Boomers who embody that trait according to the corresponding group

I’m not sure if that is best text, but it’s descriptive enough.  I would gladly welcome suggestions on how that could be refined.  When I researched how best to label the waffle chart, I discovered that most waffle charts actually tend to put the actual percentage inside the waffle grid.  You can see in these many examples from a Google Image search for Waffle Charts:

Why the percentages? Are the waffles not doing their job?

Using the percentages confused me.  That makes it seem like the entire waffle chart is unnecessary, or the label is unnecessary.  By including the actual percentage instead of having it gleaned from the grid, all we are doing effectively is simply adding background art and making our data table much bigger than it needed to be.  If it’s for making it clear for a mass audience, then perhaps it’s worth it.  Otherwise, I would leave it off, as it is stating something already indicated and deducible from the waffle chart.

As an aside, one of my grammatical pet peeves (yes, there are multiple ones) is with lists.  Each list item should be the same part of speech (noun, adjective, verb), and you do not mix parts of speech.  The original version had a noun (leader) mixed with adjectives (creative, tech-savvy, etc).  I fixed that in this final version by changing leader to leadership.  Details matter.


Let’s see how I did with the recommendations:

  1. Since each individual attribute is capable of going to 100%, the visualization should reflect this potential maximum.
    • Achieved! The waffle chart and bar chart sketches all allow us to see that each item could go as high as 100%.
  2. Since we have multiple percentages, we should not use a single pie-chart like method for visualizing the data.
    • Achieved! This was perhaps the easiest thing.  In fact, I went with 10 different pies (square, waffle-shaped pies) that a
  3. All numbers need to be on the same scale and proportion for both sides of the visualization.
    • Achieved! Each square on each waffle chart is exactly the same amount as every other square.  You can now properly visually compare the area of the Boomers against the HR Professionals.

Overall, I’m really happy with the way this one came out.  It’s much more visually interesting than the other visualizations that I’ve done.  I feel like I have definitely internalized a lot of the lessons learned from the prior cases.  It is definitely possible to make something interesting and interesting.

Right now, post your thoughts and any questions in comments.  Thanks!