Interactive map of S&P/ASX 200 boardroom connections - click to view

The Fairfax press published an article this weekend showing the linkages between company directors who sit on the boards of S&P/ASX 200 companies. Its illustrated by a pretty infographic that unfortunately doesn’t  do a very good job of informing. In fact it illustrates some of the pitfalls with the booming infographic design industry (see the first exhibit).

We’re told under the heading, A tangled business, about the tiny pool of directorial talent available in Australia. We tend to think of company boards rather like we think of turnstiles, “where the rich and powerful few swing in to make their millions.”

In an accompanying article, Power and passion play across the boards, the emphasis is on the privileged few and their inter-connectedness. Of 1,539 directors, we’re told, 205 sit on multiple boards.

Lindsay Maxstead, for example, sits on the boards of three companies which collectively account for 16% of the total weight of the S&P/ASX 200. Carolyn Hewson “holds sway over 10% of the index.”  Garry Hounsell sits on the most boards – Qantas, Nufarm, Orica, PanAust and DuluxGroup.

As a brief aside, my reaction is different – I’m surprised only 13% of S&P/ASX 200 directors sit on multiple boards in Australia. It makes me wonder if our large companies are maximising the scope for potential synergies.

It would be interesting to see what the corresponding ratio is in London and New York. Many of them are unlisted companies, but it would also be useful to see to what extent companies in technology clusters like Silicon Valley share directors.

However be that as it may, my interest is in the interactive infographic accompanying the story. Click through and have a look at it now and form your own opinion about its effectiveness before reading on.

I think it looks and feels good, but it fails to do effectively what it’s supposed to do. As so often happens, technical wizardry and aesthetic appeal triumph over good communication. That’s not good design.

An infographic should readily convey the key message. Maybe not “at a glance” but certainly after a few moments of examination. It needs to look good but not at the expense of the message.

In this case, all the information required to understand the extent to which directors sit on multiple boards is there, but you have to work far too hard to get it. You have to “get” that directors who sit on multiple boards are located in the space between companies (they’re in a different colour from the other directors, but it’s an awfully subtle difference).

Once you do, you could laboriously click on each one, trace their multiple connections visually, and eventually build up an idea of who’s the most connected. That’s ridiculous of course and you shouldn’t have to do it. Further, some directors have multiple lines passing through them suggesting they’re on more companies than closer inspection shows they actually are.

The very least an infographic like this should give you without a lot of effort – and reasonably quickly – is an overall sense of the degree of inter-connectedness between companies. Ideally, it should also convey which companies are the most connected i.e. is connectedness (via directors) evenly spread or concentrated?

I wouldn’t say it’s a failure but it could’ve and should’ve been a lot better. I’d say the same about the second exhibit. It’s a diagram of the Boston rail system scaled by journey time rather than distance. Despite appearances it’s not an official map but it serves to  illustrate some of the issues with transit map design.

Boston transit network scaled by journey time. Click to view

It too is visually attractive but you have to wonder what value it adds. Trains run on their own right-of-way, so I’d expect distance and travel time would be pretty closely correlated anyway, so why bother? (Update: Hmmm, in light of comments there are some circumstances where travel time and distance don’t necessarily correlate – see below).

But even on its own terms it’s limited. In particular, it doesn’t distinguish between express and all-stop services. Moreover it only applies to “single seat” journeys – it doesn’t show total travel time where changes between services are required (and of course it doesn’t show multi-modal trips).

These sorts of functions could’ve provided a rationale for a map like this. It’s biggest failing though is it doesn’t show service frequency, which is arguably the most important aspect of journey time. The usefulness of any transit map is limited if it doesn’t show how long a traveller has to wait for a service.

Still, it might be a useful idea if incorporated in a smartphone app, where it could embellish essential information like route, stops, frequency and connections. In that case it could also distinguish express services and incorporate real time information on delays. However in that event I’m not sure a map would be the most effective solution.