A short note about annotation

One of my aims for this year is to think more like a Data Journalist: to source my own data, find new angles on existing stories, and use annotation to provide context.

So I was delighted to get the following feedback from Mike Cisneros for my most recent visualisation: When Did Happy Days Really Jump the Shark?

MIke Cisneros tweet

If you are not aware of Mike’s work (or blog) you are really missing out – aside from his technical wizardry he is a master of editorial thinking. Check out his recent #MakeoverMonday viz Deconstructing the SCMI for example:


If you are still not convinced of the importance of annotation, here is the same visualisation stripped of the written context. As the title says, Mike is deconstructing the SCMI. But it is the annotation, not the visualisation, that is doing the heavy lifting.


My own visualisation tries to do something similar: the text at the top explain the phrase in the title, argues why this did not occur in the episode in question, and proposes an alternative.

Mark labels highlight the two key episodes, and further detail in the tooltips is signposted using a direct label  Hover

All this is done as concisely as possible in line with Jorge Camoes’ advice that annotation should be “useful and accurate and should not compete for attention…a discreet and helpful whisper.”1

When Did Happy Days Really Jump the Shark?

Happy Days

Yet the importance of annotation in Data Visualisation is often overlooked. Andy Kirk describes it as “the most neglected layer of the visualisation anatomy”and with the exception of his own book it is barely covered in the literature.

Nevertheless neglecting it does the viewer a disservice – annotation acts as a bridge between them and your work (“the interface between data and communication”3), and a failure to consider it may leave the viewer stranded.



Jorge Camoes, Data At Work p339

Andy Kirk, Data Visualisation p247

Elijah Meeks, Making Annotations First-Class Citizens in Data Visualization


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