A plotting toolbox for D3

I’m building a set of chart-making tools that don’t get between you and D3.

This document is more about the philosophy and high-level functionality of the tool set. For documentation and demo code, check out the repo.

Not getting in the way

So, what I mean by not getting between you and D3 is that this tool set does not reimplement or abstract D3’s powerful tools or notions. Instead, it glues together some of the discrete capabilities of D3 in a manner that you would most likely use them for basic chart building. Wherever this tool set creates an instance of a D3 object, such as D3.axisBottom, or even a D3 selection, it exposes that object, so you can use this tool to bootstrap basic charts quickly, but then modify them as needed.

Basic charts, which I’ll generally call “daily graphics”, include bars, lines, scatter plots and maybe some other basic charts that get the job done most of the time. These are charts that non-technical news staff members can produce on their own, or they can be output from a Pandas or R analysis.

Why bother?

You might ask why bother. There are other ready-made chart tools. I have tried many, but they tend to be highly opinionated and aren’t meant to be fiddled with outside of their own APIs. I do not like spending my time learning APIs, such as how to make a vertical line label the Highcharts way, when I can just make a standard SVG line element, and add it wherever I want.

  • Highcharts is excellent for getting charts built fast, but it is too opinionated about styling, and the API is too cumbersome.
  • ggD3 looks promising but it is no longer being actively developed.

So, I need a limited set of tools that has a minimal API, is unopinionated about styling and which is still being actively developed. If you can find one, let me know and I’ll happily abandon this project!

Okay, here’s how it all works…

The base layer: Plotter


  • An SVG element
  • Two D3 scales: One for X, one for Y

In order to put any data on an SVG you need to be able to map your data – dollars, population, car crashes – to coordinates on the page.

You create a new plotter object by calling its constructor, and then calling methods to give it an SVG element on the DOM to draw in, and two scales, for X and Y.

Any D3.scale will work – D3.scaleLinear, D3.scaleTime. Since I’m not trying to recreate or abstract any D3 components. You must set the scale’s domain based on your min and max data values, but plotter takes care of the domain, which is based on the SVG dimensions. Since plotter remaps the domain each time it redraws, this tool set gives you responsive graphics almost for free.

On “Almost” free responsiveness: Right now you have to call the draw method to redraw, but I will make that automatic.

Adding drawables

Once you have a plotter, you add any number of “drawables” – objects that can draw themselves when tied to a plotter. Calling the plotter’s draw method iterates through the drawables in order that they were added (first-in-first-out) and calls their draw methods, so you can redraw at any time.

I have implemented axes, scatter and line drawables. A bar drawable will be added next.

The plotter stores some basic information and objects all of the drawables need access to, such as the SVG, and a dictionary of its margin dimensions. Drawables, such as the axes drawable, may mutate the margins to fit their various components. When that happens, they must call the plotter’s draw function so all of the other drawables can redraw based on these updated settings.

The process of adding a drawable to a plotter involves creating a new drawable by calling its constructor and adding the drawable with the plotter’s addDrawable method.

The axes drawable


  • A plotter

Seriously, you don’t need to supply any additional data or functionaliy to draw an axis. Since you’ve already created a plotter with an X and Y scale, the axes object needs only to be created and added to the plotter.

Since it exposes the axis it creates, you can modify it using D3 or JS to your heart’s content before you draw the entire visualization with the plotter’s draw function.

This drawable adds a left and bottom axis, based on the plotter’s scale and SVG dimensions.

Note: I do not support top and right axes at this time, and that is the most opinionated piece of this code base so far.

All of the positioning to make the axes fit within the SVG are handled internally. As needed, this drawable will modify the plotter’s margins and redraw the visualization automatically, triggering all other drawables to be redrawn. Since all drawables can access the plotter’s margins, they will be redrawn with the axes dimensions and position taken into account.

Most of my daily graphics have axes, but you may well want to skip this step if you’re making a sparkline for instance.

Scatter, line drawables


  • A plotter
  • A data array
  • Two functions that return X and Y values from the array

Adding a scatter or line drawable are identical processes. You provide some array of data and a function that returns X values and a function that returns Y values.

Status and planned use

Currently, this project is just in the form of several JavaScript files you can include with script tags. They are not bundled or minified yet. I plan to add a few more features and then use this library to unify styles within a web-based in-house chart making tool, as well as for generating web charts with PANDAS.

Free as in freedom

This entire thing is re-usable under GPL 3.