The Anti-Reiteration Formula: Why using dates as timeline graphic headers is such a bad idea


What are the fondest memories of your childhood? Was it going to a circus? A rodeo? The beach? A particular vacation?

Our memories are full of events that stand out from the normal day-to-day chores. And when we recount those events, the dates on which they happened usually doesn’t matter. It’s the event—the experience—that matters most.

It’s the same way with timeline graphics. It’s the events that happen through time that matter more than the dates. Yet, that’s not how most timeline graphics are designed.

Most timeline graphics I’ve seen use the date as a header

At first, the date header formula seemed perfectly reasonable to me. It is a timeline graphic, so I’d expect it to tell me what happened over time.


Example of leading with the date. 

But on further reflection, I realized that the time component is pretty much trivial. Plus, putting the date first is reiterating what is already shown on the timeline part of the graphic. I realized it isn’t the date that matters most. Instead, the two things that matter most are the sequence of events and what happened at each time point. 

This realization made me rethink timeline graphics and how the information is designed

I realized that what should be highlighted at each time point is the moving story, not the date. To highlight the story, the information should be designed to highlight the event. 

This is the Anti-Reiteration Formula: starting with the event instead of stating the date that is shown on the timeline graphic.


Example of leading with the story.

So, why are we reiterating in the text first thing what is shown on the graphic?

I think we are thinking with facts and data in mind instead of story. It’s moving to a story mentality that we realize what matters most is the sequence of events, not when each one happened.

By highlighting the event instead of the date, the timeline graphic becomes a story. The reader can read through the timeline and see the story quickly. It’s right up front instead of being hidden in a lot of other text.

If the focus is on the event, what about the date?

The date should be included, but that’s what the timeline is for. It shows the sequence of events and how they relate to each other in time. The specific date can be placed last in the text almost like a footnote.

But what if the time interval really is important?

In that case, make the time interval really stick out. Highlight the time interval with an arrow or some other method to really make it stand out apart from the time point information.

So, make the event stand out instead of the date

It’s how we remember the important things in our lives, and it’s how any story should be presented in a timeline data graphic.

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