Many charts and graphs do not convey information effectively. This article develops a way of analysing the information in charts and graphs that reveals the design flaws in the display. The analytic scheme requires isolating four types of constituents in a display, and specifying their structure and interrelations at a syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic level of analysis. As the description is constructed, one checks for violations of ‘acceptability principles’, which are derived from facts about human visual information processing and from an analysis of the nature of symbols. Violations of these principles reveal the source of potential difficulties in using a display.