# D3.js: Encoding values as circles

Full Screen

This gist demonstrates why it’s a mistake to linearly map a data value to a circle radius.

Notice that in the first example, while `50` is only 2 times smaller than `100`, the circle that encodes the value `50` is 4 times smaller than the circle that encodes the value `100`. Even worse, while `10` is only 10 times smaller than `100`, the circle that encodes the value `10` is 100 times smaller than the circle that encodes the value `100`!

The occurrence of this mistake stems from 2 factors:

1. Misunderstanding how we visually interpret data.

When we look at a bar chart we compare the length of each bar. When we look at a waffle chart we compare the number of squares of — or the area taken by — each category. Likewise, when we look at a bubble chart we compare the area of each bubble.

Perceptually, we understand the overall amount of “ink” or pixels to reflect the data value. 1

2. Drawing an SVG circle requires a radius attribute.

To draw an SVG circle, the `cx` and `cy` attributes are used to position the center of the element and the `r` attribute is used to define the radius of the element. It is this `r` attribute that makes it natural to assume a direct mapping between data value and circle radius.

But why does this mapping visually distort data?

Let’s use two simple data values: `6` and `3`. `6` is twice as large as `3` so the proportion between the two numbers is `2`.

Now, if we’ll recall, the area of a circle equals pi times the radius squared, or `A = πr²`.

Applying part of this formula we square our values and get `36` and `9`. Notice now that `36` is 4 times as large as `9` so the proportion between the two numbers changed from `2` to `4`. (Multiplying each value by `π` won’t change the proportion between them given that `π` is a constant.)

It is this change in proportion that leads to a misrepresentation of the data.

Since it is the quadratic function that is causing this, we need to counteract its effects by applying its inverse function — the square-root function.

If we square-root our values `36` and `9` we get `6` and `3` — right back where we started. `6` is twice as large as `3` so the proportion between the two numbers remains `2`.

There are many ways to solve this issue in the D3 world, as evidenced in this gist, but the simplest one is to use a square-root scale to compute the appropriate circle radius. This way the area of each circle is proportional to the data value it’s representing.

1. This is why the US presidential election map is not only unhelpful but actually misleading. A more perceptive and informative alternative is a tilegram or hexagon tile grid map.