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Graphic Literacy

Graphic Literacy

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Identify the purpose of different graph types.

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what's covered
In this tutorial, we're going to cover the topic of graphic literacy. You will learn how to interpret visual representations of information by examining the anatomy of graphs, as well as by discussing different types of graphs that are used in environmental science.

Our discussion breaks down as follows:

  1. Graphic Literacy
  2. Parts of a Graph
  3. Types of Graphs

1. Graphic Literacy

Graphic literacy is important to understanding scientific text, as well as to comprehending the ideas behind graphical representations of information. Information in science is often represented visually because it can be a highly impactful and efficient way to communicate. It can save time because the viewer can grasp concepts more quickly, and it can show trends and distribution, making prediction easier.

Graphic literacy becomes very important when information has been presented in a biased manner. Being able to spot this helps the viewer take bias into account when trying to see science objectively.


The graph below shows greenhouse gas emissions of a fictional company over time. Someone looking at this might interpret that the company's greenhouse gas emissions are decreasing over time. However, if you notice the time span sections at the bottom, they are not presenting regular intervals.

Biased Greenhouse Gas Graph

The first section takes place over six years, and the second is also six years. However, the third section is only three years, and the last only two. If you actually kept the intervals from 1990 to 2006 at regular intervals, there would only be three sections. The new third section from 2002 to 2006 would actually only be five years, and we'd have 10,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. This means the corporation's emissions weren't actually decreasing at all.

Unbiased Greenhouse Gas Graph

2. Parts of a Graph

Let's break down the anatomy of what most graphs contain for a better understanding of what you might encounter. We've labeled the different parts on the bar graph below, from our earlier example:

Greenhouse Gas Graphs

  • The title is usually at the top or bottom, and indicates what the graph is displaying.
  • The legend can be in various locations, but is at the bottom of this particular graph. It identifies the meaning of various colors or symbols used in the graph.
  • The x-axis is always the horizontal axis, and displays a range of values or categories.
  • The y-axis is always the vertical axis, and displays a range of values.

Scale is the total range of values on the x- or y-axis. Units are the form of measurement of the values on the x- and/or y-axis. In this graph, the unit is in "tons" of greenhouse gas emissions, but it can be "number of people," "years," etc. Axis labels are descriptions of what the values on the axis represent — in this example, "Time" for the x-axis and "GHG Output" for the y-axis.

This graph doesn't have a footnote, but sometimes footnotes are placed at the bottom of a graph to provide additional explanation or interpretation of the graph. Finally, data is the information that the graph displays as a whole.

3. Types of Graphs

Let's discuss some different types of graphs that are used in environmental science, for there are many.

Type of Graph Example
Bar graphs

Bar graphs are used for showing differences in quantifiable characteristics across groups. Its common characteristics are an x- and y-axis, and data is depicted using a vertical or horizontal bar.
Bar Graph

Histograms are used to show the frequency of various characteristics across groups. Like bar graphs, they commonly have an x- and y-axis, with data depicted using a vertical or horizontal bar.
Line graphs

Line graphs are used to show a trend in a characteristic relative to changes in time, space, concentration, or other variables. They commonly have an x- and y-axis, with data depicted as a line connecting data points.
Line Graph
Scatter plots

Scatter plots are used to show the relationship between two different characteristics. They commonly have an x- and y-axis, with data depicted using individual dots for each data point.
Scatter Plot
Pie charts

Pie charts are useful for showing relative proportions of multiple characteristics or groups within a larger group. They commonly have no axes, but are shown as a circle with labeled subdivisions.
Pie Chart

Pictogrphas are like a bar graph or histogram, where they commonly use images for values, or they may use the relative size of an image to represent various values for comparison purposes.
Flow diagrams

Flow diagrams are used to show process, sequence, or flow, and may be multi-directional or web-like. They commonly have no axes, but they use arrows to show the direction of the process by connecting images, or they use text to represent each step.
Flow Diagram

Maps are used to depict differences in some characteristics, or to show the location of various phenomena. They commonly are a map of a region with icons, lines and arrows, and/or coloration, like the map shown below.

We talked about graphic literacy, the common anatomy of graphs, and the various types one might encounter in environmental science.