Month: September 2016

Professor Cairo recommends


My good friend, Alberto Cairo (University of Miami), gives us his thoughts on these current examples.


Star Mapper by Tulp interactive

“This massive visualization of 60,000 stars, a subset of the entire catalogue, was commissioned by the European Space Agency. The interface allows the user to easily explore the data in many different ways. What I like most about it, is that you can switch smoothly between views by using the navigational tabs along the bottom of the page. In visualizations, transitions are information, and here they are clear.”


2016 Election Forecast by FiveThirtyEight

“An excellent combination of charts and maps. This visualization is much simpler on the surface than Star Mapper, but the statistical analysis behind the numbers is complex. It’s a masterful representation of the data. Simple, but not simplistic, using a broad range of chart types: choropleth map, time series, box plots, cartogram*, diagram, bar charts, histogram. By the way, cartograms (which are often criticized) can be very useful if they are paired with a traditional representation of the geographic area, as here. Overall, this series of graphics is a very good way to present a complex dataset”.

*A great new tool to make cartograms:

Alberto has written these two essential books for people interested in infographics and data visualization. Read them!



Professor Cairo is Knight Chair in Visual Journalism at the School of Communication of the University of Miami, and director of the visualization program at UM’s Center for Computational Science. His online course “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization,” has attracted more than 14,000 students from more than 100 countries. He also runs a track in UM’s MFA in Interactive Media that is focused on infographics and visualization.

When infographic dinosaurs roamed the Earth


A very long time ago, I carried around a bag of technical pens, french curves, ellipse templates and shiny drawing instruments. And somehow I used them to make the examples shown here. All of my early work was produced in black and white. Sometimes I almost thought that the world was really monochrome.
Then came color. Gouache and paintbrushes. The airbrush process (seen here) alternated between euphoria and misery (when the equipment suddenly malfunctioned). The outline of this archer was drawn on a film overlay with a technical pen.

My next infographic phase involved producing “mechanicals.” Artwork that was made up of layers of film over a keyline base layer. Countless hours were spent cutting rubylith film with a sharp knife and peeling away the unwanted areas, or filling in areas with black ink. Adhesive registration marks kept it all aligned, and you needed a lot of them as there was often a substantial stack of layers. The last step was to make a mind-blowing guide for the print technician to piece it all together. Infographics people would impress each other with statements like, “That’s nothing. I did a map yesterday with twenty-two layers”.

Here’s an example of a markup that would guide the technician who put together the color separations for printing. How it was done correctly always amazed me. I have a sense of wonder about it to this day. In a later era, but before I had a computer, I sat with the technician as the graphic was assembled on a computer monitor.
This 1988 spread from Condé Nast Traveler magazine was produced as a mechanical.
Below is a color guide used to revise the graphic after the first set of separations. It accompanied the proof version, which had overlays B and C attached to it.
In the pre-computer era, you could not easily make changes once you were into the artwork phase, so you had to be sure you had a good plan. Or risk a nervous breakdown. The process of making a rough sketch carried over into my computer-generated world. The following statement is not a revelation (many designers much younger than me use this method), but drawings are a great way to both work out ideas, and get feedback from your editor or client, who knows the sketch is the language of a flexible idea.

A rough assembly in Illustrator (or InDesign or Photoshop), with real components, is not the same thing. People can feel intimidated about suggesting changes because you’re presenting something that looks like a finished item. At least, that’s my opinion.


Masks on or off?



Beautiful Chinese woman wearing a white face mask against pollution or disease


On a trip to China a few months ago, I fortunately did not see much of the legendary smog. However, I was told that, in Beijing and Shanghai, it’s a very good idea to have a mask handy, especially in the winter months. People regularly check the air quality levels (and the forecast) on their phone, or other device.


I downloaded this iPhone app, “China Air Quality Index,” just in case. Never really needed it though,


Data history: Below are the difficult days of December 2015, compared to the better days of May 2016. Sent to me by Wendy Huang, and Nicole Cheng, former VisCom M.A. students, who live in Beijing.


Information online: We seem to be good in Ohio. This is yesterday’s data for Columbus from the Real-time Air Quality website, which is based in Beijing. The world-wide database has air quality metrics for many locations. See if you need to wear a mask here:


It’s easy to see the value of data visualization that helps with daily life. And, of course, this is just one of many, many everyday examples. I’ll be talking about several other ones in the future.

Footnote: Nigel Hawtin, an infographic friend from the U.K., told me about this project after he saw the original post. It’s the work of RCA masters student, Yijin Huo. Vases that are glazed according to pollution levels in Beijing.

This is the color of the classic Ru porcelain vase.


And these are pollution-colored ones. Matched to samples of the Beijing sky.



There’s more information here:



I’ve admired Bryan Christie Design’s work for a long time, and I’ll be featuring examples from their medical and scientific portfolio in future posts. ( This architectural project features the subdued palette and sophisticated rendering that is the studio’s hallmark. It appeared in WIRED magazine’s Design Issue in May. (The inset diagrams on the second spread are by Jason Lee.)

See the online version of the project here:



The Bryan Christie style was a breakthrough after the early years of gaudy, every-color-under-the-sun 3D graphics, and still no one does this restrained approach better. Other people’s renderings appear at first glance to be taking a similar track, but upon close inspection, they usually lack the finesse in color and lighting, and (most importantly) do not work well as information graphics.

Working on the rendering in LightWave.


Rough versions to fix the viewpoint.


Renderings of the selected view.



The final version shown larger.


In Bryan’s words, “We received the 3D file from the architects and had to make many edits so that we could manage it in our software. Files from sources like this are always very, very heavy and detailed—way too detailed for our needs. (We tend to keep things as pared down as possible). Many angles were sent to the art director, and she choose one. From there we started refining the art. Close to deadline, (as is always the case) the editors decided that they wanted the graphic to show more of the art that’s in the museum. So we had to scramble to build the additional pieces in 3D. It was a nightmare because WIRED had to check on permissions for the works.”


This small person is standing on a table in the Bryan Christie studio. He’s escaped from the rendering, thanks to a 3D printer. And he’s important because a sense of scale is vital (see the previous post). Sometimes, when we’re looking at infographics, it seems as if the world is completely devoid of people. That situation is improving, but there are still many examples where the simple addition of a person, or some point of reference, would help us to better understand a size relationship.

Lunch (to the same scale)


Whenever I have lunch with my friend, Nigel Holmes, the infographics master (more about his work in future posts), we meet at the same location: the Heartland Brewery, which is in the Empire State Building. Why? Because it is the perfect place for a discussion about diagrams. After all, we’ve both used the iconic skyscraper so many times to give a sense of scale in our graphics.


A detail from an Everest graphic designed by Nigel. (Click on image to see full graphic.)


An excerpt from Nigel’s “The Surplus and the Debt” movie. (Click on image to view animation.)


And details from two of my graphics:


See the full graphics here:

The Hollywood effect



(From “The Avengers.” © Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures. See more at:

I love Hollywood. Every blockbuster fantasy film contains intricate data visualizations and info-interfaces. Huge floating displays, packed with every type of information. Charts are building all over the place, with menus, icons, rotating globes, multiple camera feeds, dashboards, and so on. Even science fiction films that get a mediocre review are a complete hit for me, providing that there’s the usual CGI vision of a future filled with infographics.

The problem is that, obviously, it’s all just for the effect. The creators can do pretty much whatever they want. Nothing is on screen long enough for us to really analyze it. We just see a few key words and the very convincing-looking visuals that go with them. Most of it is very beautiful too. It’s the info-driven world of tomorrow.


(From “Oblivion.” © Universal Pictures. See more at:

So what’s the problem with Hollywood doing its thing? Of course, inside the movie theater it’s all perfectly fine, but in my world, every part of a presentation should be delivering something worth absorbing. I think there is a carry-over from Tinseltown to the real world of information design. There are so many graphics (especially in corporate areas) that are just an exercise in infographic styling. I’ve been asked many times to do this kind of thing myself. (Full disclosure: I’ve gone ahead and done my share. Apologies for that.) A lot of clients think that as long as the visualization looks like it is in the language of information graphics, then everything’s great. Unfortunately, there is often not much happening in terms of clarity or explanation.

But… I still love those movies.


(From “Oblivion.” © Universal Pictures.)


(From “The Avengers.” © Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures.)


(From “The Avengers.” © Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures.)


(From “Star Trek Into Darkness.” © Paramount Pictures. See more at:

Pictograms on poles


I used to collect full-size flags. My hallway looked like a corridor at the United Nations Headquarters. So it struck a chord when I saw Oscar Pernefeldt’s design for a world flag. Why don’t we have a flag that represents the idea of Planet Earth? The closest thing out there right now flies over U.N. buildings. Designing a flag that represents our world is a noble idea, and will be useful when we are moving freely around the galaxy. Talking of warp factor 10, a much larger area is represented by Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets symbol. Clearly inspired by the earthbound United Nations.


The International Flag of Planet Earth, by Oscar Pernefeldt. From the website: “Centered in the flag, seven rings form a flower—a symbol of the life on Earth. The rings are linked to each other, which represents how everything on our planet, directly or indirectly, are linked. The blue field represents water which is essential for life—also as the oceans cover most of our planet’s surface. The flower’s outer rings form a circle which could be seen as a symbol of Earth as a planet and the blue surface could represent the universe.”



United Nations. Olive branches and azimuthal projection.


Not the Klingons’ favorite flag.

Back to Earth

The Flag of Europe represents the European Union.  A design by Rem Koolhaas in 2012, (really just a concept), was dubbed the “barcode.” It includes all the colors of the (then) 15 EU member states’ flags.



Perhaps the world’s most unusual current flag shape comes from Nepal. The other day, a Nepali-born taxi driver was pointing this out proudly to me. (Yes, I talk to cab drivers about flags.) No traditional rectangle here. Centuries ago, it was two separate pennants.


Then there’s the square Swiss flag, so often represented as a rectangle (it matches the others better that way), and that mistake drives eight million people crazy.


Flags are pictograms on poles. At least, they are in Grimwade’s world.

Eight by Eight: New issue



A preview is here, and subscription info too:

It will be available on Magzter tomorrow (September 7) :



I went on a trip to China in May, which, of course, sparked the idea for this spread. China is the fastest-growing soccer nation in the world, and has become a major force in the transfer market, especially this year. There’s (obviously) a huge population, and big-spending teams. The traditional soccer powers of Europe and South America should be looking over their shoulders. China is rising.

The ultimate pencil



The Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 is considered by many people to be the last word in pencils. Nothing else compares. The trouble is, it went out of production in 1998. You can find one (or a box like this) on eBay. But watch out, it can cost as much as $75 for each pencil. Apparently, there are Hollywood screenwriters who cannot function at all without this pencil. “There is no way I’m writing that screenplay without a Blackwing 602,” they scream. And it has to be the original (alternate shown below), or they’re going home.


I’m happy with the modern version, the Palomino Blackwing 602, which has been around since 2008. I’m not too freaked out by the change in the eraser color either. But some people…




Soccer-centric (Part 2)



I was watching a championship game, and the winning team were presented with a huge, heavy trophy. I realized that I didn’t really know what many major trophies looked like. So I began looking for information about them. They’re shown to the same scale, color-coded by type, and compared in size to the 2014 World Cup soccer ball. Surprisingly, they’re not all well-documented. My international infographics contacts helped me pin down the more difficult details. A few points: The most important one of all, the World Cup, is the smallest. The gin and tonic, my favorite drink, is part of the branding of this spread.


A Premier League team doctor gave us the inside details on the essential physical exam that a player has to undergo before a club finalizes the deal. At the bottom, he describes the common injuries that sideline players. Illustration by Michael Hoeweler.


How NYC FC’s pitch fits (tightly) into Yankee stadium. They also sometimes have gridiron football games there, so I showed how that fits too. I really like size comparisons, so I put several related ones in. I’ve always wanted to get the Statue of Liberty into an infographic, and this was my chance.


Record-breakers. Gareth Bale is no longer the most expensive player in the soccer world. As of a few weeks ago, it’s Paul Pogba of Manchester United. (See the last post, he’s on the cover).


What if the World Cup was decided by a nation’s wealth, or size of population, and not by playing soccer matches? The U.S. or Switzerland would be the champs, not Germany.


Professor Grimwade holds forth! From the University of Eight by Eight. This is probably the kind of infographic I tell my students at OU not to make. A bunch of fun items with several gratuitous graphic elements.


A detailed portrait of the London-based teams that play in the Premier League. By Kim Lightbody.


Tracking where the current English top-flight clubs (as of 2014) have finished the season. It starts from 1888, when the four-tier system began. By W.Tyler Hall and Martin Salazar.