Month: December 2016

A question of scale


I’ve been caught in this dilemma on numerous occasions, so I’m not pretending that I know the answer. It’s an issue as old as infographics itself. Perhaps there is no answer. Anyway, here are some examples that show the effect of using a reasonably-sized symbol to mark something that is really small.

PUB LAND This was going round on social media recently. A group of mathematicians plotted a shortest-distance tour of 25,000 British pubs, as a project. It’s a lot of fun (and that’s the point here), but it demonstrates what happens when you put a pointer at every location. It’s correct in terms of GPS coordinates, but the visual impression is greatly exaggerated. Britain has a lot of pubs, that is true, but it’s not a solid mass of pubs with no space between them. (Image: University of Waterloo, Canada)


AIR TRAFFIC There are thousands of flights in the air over the U.S. at any one moment. However, the visual impression of the density of that traffic depends on the size of the aircraft icon used. The bigger the symbol, the more crowded the airspace becomes. In a satellite photo, they would not be visible, although that’s not much use as an informational graphic. (Image: ATCSCC)


SPACE JUNK There’s a lot of junk orbiting the Earth, but there’s a lot of space between it too. You wouldn’t see any of it at all from this viewpoint. Here it looks like aliens can’t avoid banging into an old satellite as they maneuver their plasma-powered spacecraft in for a first contact landing. (Image: NASA)


GALAXY The ultimate example. It contains billions of stars, but the distances are so great compared to the size of the stars that two galaxies could pass through each other without any of the objects colliding. Of course, here we’re looking at light from stars, dust and gas. We’re not seeing the scale of individual stars at all. They are mostly blurred together into a smooth distribution of light at this resolution. The bluish-white dots that we can see are individual stars that are much more luminous than the Sun. By the way, this is the Andromeda galaxy, and it will collide with our own Milky Way in several billion years time. (Image: NASA)

Thanks to Ryan Chornock, a professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Ohio University, for help with the space examples.


Cardboard interactives


Long before online interactivity, there were rotating wheels (known as wheel charts, or volvelles). They often contained a lot of information and delivered it in small, user-controlled amounts. Isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to do today? There are several examples in Jessica Helfand’s excellent book “Wheels of Invention”:


Wheel charts have been around a very long time. This one, from the 15th-century, is for determining the position of the Sun and the Moon in the zodiac.

(National Library of Wales)


The Eagle



Published between 1950 and 1969 in it’s original form, the Eagle was probably quite influential on a couple of generations of potential British graphic artists. It was really successful, the first issue sold out the print run of 900,000 copies. Always beautifully illustrated throughout by a roster full of talent. As far as I’m concerned, three illustrators stand out. Frank Hampson, who drew the Dan Dare cover feature, L.Ashwell Wood, who illustrated the cutaways that were in the center of every issue, and Frank Bellamy, with his powerful use of color and space. Bellamy eventually took over the creation of the Dan Dare strip.

Below, cutaways by L.Ashwell Wood.

The Happy Warrior: The Life Story of Sir Winston Churchill by Frank Bellamy (

More Eagle here:




Unfortunately, I don’t have the (hand-drawn) original artwork of this graphic any more. Just the metal plate. It’s a relic of a pre-computer time, although this reproduction method is still used in traditional letterpress printing today. The plate is shown larger below to give a better idea of the details. The feature that contained this illustration was about the history of British residential architecture, and I tried to capture the different eras. From right to left in this reversed image.

THE PROCESS Artwork was drawn larger than the final size (150% or 200%). Then it was photographed with a line art camera, and that image was photo-etched out of a sheet of zinc to make the printing plate. The white areas were further removed using a router (the holes in the plate here), to make sure they would not be liable to pick up any ink during printing. In some of the indentations, you can see ink from proofs that were made directly from the plate before it became part of the page, and again after the page had been completely assembled.

HOT METAL That was the term for newspaper composition at that time. The type for the page was set on Monotype or Linotype typesetting machines, which were like giant typewriters with pots of melted lead feeding into moulds. The resulting metal type was locked together with the photographs and illustrations (mounted on blocks) in a metal frame called a chase. From that complete page, a flong (a papier-mâché mould) was made, and this was used to cast the curved printing plates that would fit onto the rollers of the huge rumbling presses down in the newspaper’s basement.

The artwork above was shown in an earlier post ( As you can see, it was to be printed 147 mm wide, the dimension penciled below the art, and was drawn at 150% of the final size. It was much easier to work with pen and ink at a larger size, of course. But then again, as I said in that earlier post, “Trees are easy”.


Everyday symbols


AT SIGN This email staple goes way back. It appeared in a 1345 Bulgarian translation of the Manasses Chronicle, although presumably not in connection with email.

More recently it was used in commercial and shipping documents meaning “at the rate of”. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson invented email, and decided to use the symbol in email addresses to separate names of people from their machines. Thus starting the path for it to become perhaps the most commonly used icon in the world.


Chris Messina, at one time a Google designer, came up with the very first hashtag on Twitter. In 2007, he posted the hashtag #barcamp. It had previously been used mostly in information technology to denote a special meaning, especially in the programming language C. Twitter initially rejected the idea, but well, you know the rest.

EQUALS SIGN Perhaps the ultimate minimalist piece of historical information design is the equals sign. Two parallel lines of equal length. “And to avoid the tedious repetition of these words “is equal to”, I will substitute, as I often do when working, a pair of parallels or twin lines of the same length, thus: = , because no two things can be more equal.” The words of Robert Recorde, a Welsh physician and mathematician, who invented the symbol in 1559.

APPLE COMMAND KEY Susan Kare, a designer at Apple in the 1980s, was looking for something to replace the Apple logo (which had been on the command keys of early models) as the command symbol for the new Macintosh. Steve Jobs felt it would be too much to continue using the Apple logo and thus have it on all the shortcut menus. So Susan chose this geometric shape from a symbol dictionary, unaware of its use on Swedish road sign H22, which indicates national heritage sites.

The symbol is perhaps derived from the plan of Borgholm Castle.

(Photograph: L.G.foto)

Then there’s the Bowen knot, of Welsh origin. And on we go…

(Photograph: David J. Fred)

Solar modeling



When I glue a basketball to the top of a pole in my garden, and tell people that it’s the sun, they will probably suggest that I seek urgent medical care. They are unlikely to know that it’s the first stage of my local solar model, and that I soon will be gluing a tiny .09 inch (0.22 cm) blue sphere, representing the Earth, to a fence 85 feet (25.8 meters) away. Using an online calculator, it’s easy to input any size of Sun at any location, and get the corresponding scale model metrics. This is the essential first stage in planning the big diagram.

The Sun in proportion to the planets.

There are representations of the solar system, at various sizes, in many locations. Here are a few examples.


(Photograph: bengt-re)

The world’s largest solar model is in Sweden. The Sun is represented by the huge Ericsson Globe in Stockholm. The indoor arena has a diameter of 361 feet (110 meters). Sedna, a large minor planet, is 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, and 567 miles (912 km) from the globe, way up in the north of the country. This would be out in the farthest reaches of the solar system.

(Photograph: Dag Lindgren)


(Photograph: Michael York/The Maine Solar Model)

The Maine Solar System Model covers 95 miles (153 km).

The Sun is sometimes a painted ring, sometimes a painted shape, on multiple floors inside the University of Maine, and is 49.5 feet (15 meters) in diameter. The 5.5 inch (14 cm) fiberglass Earth is outside a car sales location just 1 mile (1.6 km) away. It’s another 39 miles (63 km) down the road past models of all the planets to 1 inch (2.54 cm) Pluto (still a planet in those days, and despite being since downgraded, is after all, still orbiting the Sun). They’ve added a dwarf planet, Eris, discovered in 2005, which is a stunning 54.5 miles south of Pluto at this scale. It’s one of the farthest known objects in the Solar System.


(Photographs: Teresacurl)

The much smaller Carl Sagan Planet walk was built in 1997 in Ithaca, New York, in memory of it’s very influential resident. It’s 0.7 miles (1.18 km) from the 10.9 in. (27.8 cm) diameter Sun to tiny Pluto, which is 0.2 inches in diameter (0.05 cm). The Sun-sized opening is a constant to compare the planets against.


A creative solar model constructed in a Nevada lakebed.


Rotating planets by Authentic Models. (Available from numerous online retailers.) Clearly not to scale. So if you give this a gift, make sure the recipient knows not to use it for calculating space probe trajectories.


Test card



In the earlier days of television, when the cathode ray tube (CRT) was king, broadcasters would put up a test pattern when there was no programming (which was quite often). It was a reference point to help engineers and technicians tune in cameras and tvs, adjust aerials etc. It was called a test card because it really was a card that a camera was pointing at. Later it became know as a test pattern. The geometry of the earlier versions is there to help adjust CRTs. Not needed with modern plasma and LCD sets. The patterns are still around today in digital form for equipment adjustment, but there is no downtime on television channels, so we don’t see them on our sets. I’ve always liked them as simple, functional pieces of information design.

Below, a 1939 Indian-head pattern. Used up to 1970.










They were (and are) accompanied by music, or a sine wave tone, for checking sound reception.

The SMPTE bars are the most common test screen today in the North American region (NTSC standard). Used frequently in video production and transmission, this is a known standard, meaning that people across the T.V. industry have a benchmark to match their image against. The pattern comes with a potentially mind-numbing continuous tone. Experience the joy of it here:


And to finish, here’s a dynamic-looking T.V. from the 1950s, just because it’s…unusual by today’s standards. Not a thin black rectangle.



Pie chart anxiety




(Photograph © vician/123rf)

This classic charting method has  taken a lot of criticism in recent years (especially from academics), perhaps because of the endless use of badly-conceived pie charts in painfully-awful business presentations. Extreme perspective, garish colors, drop shadows, multiple slices. There are millions of examples online. Below is a Google search for “pie chart”.


But when William Playfair invented the form in 1801, it was a great idea. “Honey, I’ve just invented the pie chart,” he shouted from his wood-paneled office. “That’s nice dear,” she replied, unaware of the trend that he had just started. Company reports would never be the same again. Seriously, dividing up a number into it’s component parts might be represented extremely well by the idea of cutting up a pie. And like most things, it’s not the form itself, but the misuse of that form that brings problems.

Pie charts in perspective are often very misleading as this simple graphic demonstrates.

Sometimes you will see charts were the segments add up to more than 100%. This is wrong. It’s not a good idea to have large number of slices, because meaningful comparison (and clarity) starts to disappear. Some people say that five or six should be the maximum.


As a general piece of advice, consider carefully if the data might be better shown as bars. Fine differences are much easier to see in that form. We’re not that good at comparing different areas that start at different points. Which brings me to the proportional circle. Not a good way to compare small differences either. It is widely used in infographics, and sometimes there are even multiple proportional pie charts in a project, but it can be really hard to get a grasp on the data.

Below is a clever project by Arthur Buxton. The paintings of Van Gogh. The five most prominent colors in each painting are shown as percentages. See more of his work here:


I don’t want to spoil the quiz, but the top left one is Starry Night.


There are many pie chart jokes bouncing around on social media, but this is the best one, in my opinion.



Informational visions



I’m walking in Manhattan (where I used to live), my head full of thoughts about making infographics. Expressed (of course) in pictograms. If you click on the image, you’ll see that I’ve decoded it. (Note: Keep your expectations reasonably low before clicking. It’s not rocket science.) This illustration originally appeared in the book “Infographics. A Visual Definition”. Eighty-one infographic designers submitted a page. It was produced to mark the twentieth-anniversary of the Malofiej conference. This year will be the twenty-fifth. More about that in later posts. The book can be purchased here:

The example below is my favorite from the book. Nigel Holmes is protecting us from the onslaught of Big Data with a pencil. For some of us, it’s a mouse or a stylus, but the role of the designer in a world of ever-increasing information has never been more valuable. In a best-case scenario, that data is analyzed, and the truths within it are explained with clear, concise visuals. That’s my dream.