Makeover Monday – The size of US National Debt

Posted by

Andy had warned me about this week’s Makeover Monday. 2 fields. 4 values.
I didn’t remember his warning until I opened the .tde this morning and there it was:


I had a look at the original visualisation which is an infographic by


I am usually quite partial to infographics and I think this one has a few good elements.

  • I actually like the pie chart at the top because there are only 2 dimension members and therefore only 2 segment members: the US and the rest of the world. Nice and simple
  • I also like the charts with the differently coloured squares because it shows proportions
  • the additional text and information is interesting
  • the design is okay too

But there are a few things I would do differently and that just don’t work for me here.

  • I personally cannot imagine the sheer magnitude of trillions or even billions, so these units don’t work for me to make it any more comprehensible
  • some of the comparisons of debt to <other stuff> are unclear. Debt being bigger than a company? Turns out it is the company value (if you read further on the right). Even that to me is arbitrary.
  • some of the colour use is confusing. At first green is used for US debt but further down it is also used to depict different currencies or companies. Stick to one meaning per colour…


So I wanted to simplify this topic. It isn’t easy. Simplification can be really difficult. But here is what I came up with.




It took an hour. 50min of that hour were spent on thinking about what I should be doing. I had a few scribbles on paper. I was imagining a pie chart and various iterations of bar charts. I created and deleted and created and deleted and nothing satisfied me.

In the end I decided to keep it very simple, because there are only two records in the dataset. Despite my earlier criticism of the magnitude of the numbers, I decided to keep them in their original state, because breaking them down into a smaller unit would require additional explanations, which wouldn’t help with simplicity.

Colour-wise I decided on Black for the total global debt and Red(ish) for the US, because I like the contrast it creates with the black.

I also added a kind of reference line on the total debt chart to indicate how high the US debt reaches. By specifying that US debt is 1/3 of global debt I aimed to provide an easy reference point, because most people can imagine a third of something.

I had thought of adding some provocative statements, but decided against it. I’m no politician, finance expert or journalist. I just want to visualise the facts. What people think of it, is up to them.

Happy data visualising, everyone…


    1. Thank you, Andy. You certainly gave us a tricky challenge this time. But if I’m honest, it was an opportunity to learn much more than when using richer datasets that make it easier to create a story.
      I like it when it’s difficult 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s