I'm at the start of a project which is all about visualising and comparing the balance sheet of large organisations, primarily defined by these four numbers: assets, liabilities, revenues, expenses. It's more about government than the private sector, if that's relevant, so "profit" is not the point here - or would be called "surplus".

Our client has a particular visual representation in mind:

enter image description here

Once you understand the language, then you can quickly glance at one of these four-quadrant representations of an organisation and mentally categorise it, like "breaking even", "massive deficit", "huge debt but in the black".

The biggest issue (for me) is that this representation is novel, and hence unfamiliar.

My question is: is there a more familiar way of representing these four numbers?

Is there some kind of more familiar visual language we can draw on? A better way to represent this? In many cases (not all), we will have some previous years of data, and in many cases (not all), we will be able to break down the individual quadrants into more detailed units.

Our expected end users are not particularly financially literate, and are not expected to engage with the visualisation for very long. We may only have a few seconds to a minute to tell a story.

  • It wouldn't be as visually appealing but a standard bar graph conveys the same information and most people have been familiar with them since grade school.
    – DasBeasto
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:13
  • I would be careful about using 2D and 3D displays for 1D numbers. In your example, the 161.1B difference between assets and liabilities looks a lot bigger because you see them as a pie slices rather than lines. (The 3D example below is even more out of scale.) See this wikipedia article for details. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:53
  • Yeah, I'm aware of the problem with 2D-ifying a 1D number. :/ Using bar charts sounds simple, but it's not really that obvious how you combine say assets (a fixed number) with revenues (a recurring number) in the same graph without causing confusion. That and the scales of the two can be very different. Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 3:33

2 Answers 2


To me a sunburst, hiveplot or a sankey diagram seem better options, depending on the context of the data.

  1. Hiveplot shows all data layers without the liability of pie-chart-like design that makes all four categories look like 25% each.

enter image description here

  1. Sunburst is great for displaying breakdowns of each part, and this can be priceless in displaying sub-flows.

enter image description here

  1. Finally, Sankey is best for displaying where flows are going, and I suspect in this case some of the figures might be cross-dependent, for example, part of the revenue can go into expenses or assets, so not all data is on the same level.

enter image description here

The diagram you are going to use is quite hard to read, mostly because the axis legend seems off — if it's a log scale, this should be noted somewhere. It's also hard to compare diagonal categories such as Expenses and Assets, as the guidelines are circular and our eyes do not parse them as easily as horisontal/vertical lines.


Very interesting question. Possibly, one of the most expressive way to represent budget figures that are linked between them was the Multi-Depth 3D Pie Chart. This kind of chart reveals instantly what one needs to understand: what are the lowest figures and the highest ones.

Here is a possible visualization of the multi-depth chart : Multi-depth chart

Maybe you could have further informations on how to do this on this link using PHP: Multi-depth Pie Chart

For more informations, check out the question on Stackoverflow : 3D Pie chart in Highcharts/Javascript

Hope this helps.

  • While this is very intuitive for displaying values relative to other values (if green is profit and red is expense, then everyone is happy), but I would think it would be quite difficult to put absolute values like the green profit bar represents $500 million.
    – DasBeasto
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:55
  • Indeed, that's the representation revealed in the original chart. While the 4 figures are displayed together, then each is been calculated according to a scale and then IMHO can therefore be represented as a relative percentage.
    – Sivounette
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:06

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