Category: Data visualization

Archaeological pictograms


Fabienne Kilchör designed the font, Diglu, to help communicate archaeological information to a target audience. The project is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

As a graduate student at Bern University, Fabienne began the development of the font as a research project for her Ph.D thesis. She approached the Archeology Department because she felt that data visualization is too often directed at scientific communication, and she wanted to contribute to humanities and cultural studies. Two other factors: Fabienne has a personal interest in archaeology, and archaeologists have plenty of data to work with.

After an initial discussion with a professor, she identified areas where information graphics could possibly make a difference. Then she started looking for new methods to visualize archaeological data.

Starting the process The first stage was to interview archaeologists and to analyze numerous reports and publications, looking for places where difficulties in communication could be improved with a visual tool. There were two weeks of field research in Turkey, working with archaeologists. (Photograph by Susanne Ruthishauser)

Back in Berne, Fabienne began making rough sketches from photographs and archeologists drawings, before moving to Illustrator to create the vector images. Using variable widths, she designed two or more different pictograms. After presenting the different variations to an archeologist (the end-user), one was chosen, and that design was refined further. An exhaustive criteria-grid helped to decide the ideal pictograms. Criteria like “recognition” or “degree of differentiation” were very important. The result of all this development was a pictorial font, Diglu, that could be used in reports, books, presentations, maps, charts and diagrams. It’s really a system of mini-infographics.

Reducing complexity, and creating a unified set of symbols, in terms of gray value and spacing, were key parts of the overall design.

Consistency across text characters and pictograms was a priority.

The font comes in a full range of weights.

Key point Fabienne not only used the principles of font design, but also the principles of information design. The Diglu font is a hybrid of both those worlds.

Diglu is intended to be a uniform visual language. Typography meets information, design meets science.

Use in text:

Use in diagrams:

The font will be available in June here:

Work by Emphase, the studio that Fabienne runs with Sébastien Fasel in Lausanne, Switzerland, can be seen here:

Science decoded


“For science infographics, I try to find a visual story that I can use to make the information more engaging. For example, I’ve used burning paper sculptures to talk about forest fires, or architectural drawings to talk about human spines. It’s important to make sure the visual wrapper doesn’t affect the information inside the infographic, but I think there’s a fairly wide range of styles that can fit that requirement.”

This is “Science for the People”. Superb visualizations that explain complex subjects clearly and concisely. See a lot more at Eleanor’s website:

Below, embryo development in the style of a furniture assembly guide. (Click on the image for a higher resolution version.)

The mechanics of breathing.

The motion here is not necessary for informational reasons but, in terms of engagement, it works superbly.

From a set of virus trading cards. Definitely not what we want to be exchanging.

Red blood cell disorders. The decorative style is inspired by hand-woven rugs and Rococo stucco work. (Click on the image for a higher resolution version.)

Eleanor made plants from paper for a set of six graphics about species that have adapted to fire-prone conditions. Two are shown here.


A Victorian steam-punk approach to baby heart development. (Click on the image for a higher resolution version.)

The spinal cord explained in an architectural style. (Click on the image for a higher resolution version.)

I’ve shown this graphic in two previous posts, but I’m showing it again. Just nine frames, and I love it!

Eleanor is studying for a PhD in Biology at the University of Washington.

Paper graphics


Petals by Charlene Lam.

“I currently live in Umeå, a city at latitude 63° 50′ N in northern Sweden. Our winter days are short and summer days are long. Using the lengths of daylight for the first of each month, I created a visualization with 12 “petals”. The outer loop of each petal represents the 24 hours in the day; the inner loop is the length of daylight, ranging from 4h 33m on January 1 to 20h 34m on July 1. The simple lines suggest the passing of time, as well as the promise of spring to come.”
This elegant graphic won a paper-based visualization competition.

Bert Simons makes portraits of people out of paper. After taking photographs, he uses 3D software to produce the printout that, when cut and folded, magically creates a faceted recreation of the person.

Hang your friends heads on the wall like hunting trophies!

The technique developed further.

Gretchen Nash has a suitcase of childhood letters and notes that she analyzed into categories (like swear words, nicknames and holidays), and then used paper to make infographics for a book, “Dear Gretchen”. It was her senior thesis project at CalArts.

For this Good 100 issue, a team led by guest art director Brian Rea, produced all the illustrations from cut paper.

The left over pieces made a fun spread.

Fake data viz


If no one looks too closely, you might get away with this approach. Buy a Spirograph (my set is shown above), select some wheels, and start drawing. Then add a headline and some informational-looking labels. You’ve created an image that looks something like a real data display, and it might even be the equal of some of them, in terms of being informative.

You can always use the same image for something else, and finish work early. With any luck, no one will ever notice.

An online generator:

I recently received this diecast anniversary souvenir version as a gift. No need for data viz software. Here I come!


Moving borders


The border between Italy and it’s neighbors in the Alps is not fixed. It depends upon the position of glaciers, and they’re shrinking. Our dependence on fixed printed maps, like those in atlases, is challenged by this data visualization. Using ultra-precise GPS sensors, the border can be seen moving in real time.

The “Italian Limes” project was originally designed for an installation at the 2014 Architecture Biennale in Venice, by Studio Folder. The focus is the Grafferner Glacier that borders Austria.

Installing new solar-powered sensors in April 2016 at the base of Mt. Similaun, which is 3,300 meters (10,800 feet) above sea level.

At the installation, changes in the boundary are projected onto a 3D model.

An automated pantograph, controlled by an Arduino board and programmed with Processing, translates the coordinates received from the sensors on the glacier into a real-time representation of the shifts in the border. It produces a real-time map that visitors can take away.

Italian Limes is an ongoing project by Folder (Marco Ferrari, Elisa Pasqual), Delfino Sisto Legnani, Pietro Leoni, Alessandro Mason, Angelo Semeraro, Livia Shamir. All photos are by Delfino Sisto Legnani.

The dataviz album cover


The iconic art for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (1979) was designed by Peter Saville. The source was a stacked plot in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy (1977) that shows pulses from the first pulsar to be discovered, CP 1919.

The image remains very popular today. I wonder if many people know where it comes from?

3D version by Marvin Bratke.

The Unknown Pleasures image has been the source for many tattoos. Below is an extreme example.

The vinyl version is a packaging gem.

Details below.


Jen Christiansen’s excellent blog has two posts about the scientific background:

Jen told me that when she wears her cat lovers’ shirt (designed by Tobe Fonseca), a lot of people ask about it.

Malofiej 25


Next week, I’ll be in Pamplona, Spain for the Malofiej conference and workshop (M25). It’s not too late to sign up for this essential infographics and data visualization event. I’m co-hosting the “Show Don’t Tell” workshop with two super-talented and influential infographics people: Fernando Baptista from National Geographic magazine, and Xaquín González, who until very recently led the Guardian Visuals team.


There is no other event in the world that is entirely focused on all forms of explanatory graphics. From the workshop, to the conference, to the awards (which are judged by an impressive roster of international professionals). Then there’s the friendliness and openness of the whole thing. Ask anyone who has been there. It’s a place to learn new things, and to become part of the infographic community. Yes, I am very biased (having been there 22 times), but I highly recommend it.

See the program:

Register for the workshop or conference (or preferably both) using the form here:

I think of Malofiej as the United Nations of Infographics. People from all over the world seem to get on just fine. An encouraging lesson in these difficult times.

Malofiej 1

Out of interest, I’ve been looking at 1993, which was the year of Malofiej 1. The internet existed, but there was only the visually-limited (although leading edge at the time) Mosaic browser, which later became Netscape.

Consequently, Malofiej 1 was entirely about print infographics. Illustrator 5.0 came out that year, and finally we had layers and a preview mode. Photoshop 2.5, however, did not have layers, or multiple undos. The Mac operating system was System 7.

Desktop: Quadra 700 with 8 MB (!) of RAM.

Portable: PowerBook 180c. 4-bit grayscale screen, 80MB hard drive. With a trackball.

And… I have to say that M25, for anyone British (like me), brings to mind the 117-mile (188 km) motorway that surrounds London. It’s one of the busiest roads in the U.K.


The Isotype revolution


This is the second post in a series about the search for a pictorial language, by Nigel Holmes.

Excuse me where’s the restroom? Moments later, I see the familiar icon of a man and a woman. Ah, relief. Most people don’t know that the grandfather of these welcoming little people is Gerd Arntz. (They probably don’t care much either, when nature calls.) Gerd Arntz’s boss was Otto Neurath.

Mention Neurath to anyone who knows the name, and the kind of illustration that will come to mind was probably created by his brilliant collaborator (and toilet-icon grandfather) Arntz—an artist who made mostly black and white wood- and lino-cuts, and whose work still looks modern though he started working 90 years ago. (He died in 1988.)

But it’s Otto Neurath (1882–1945) who was the force behind the graphic information movement called ISOTYPE (International System of TYpographic Picture Education). It’s still a huge influence on information graphics and data visualization. Below is the well-known logo.

Neurath was a social scientist, not a graphic designer. True to the idea of this blog, he made “Infographics for the People”—the people of Vienna, in his case. In 1925, he founded the Gesellschaft und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Social and Economics Museum), and his exhibitions about social conditions in Vienna consisted of large hand-made charts and diagrams, and models. He understood that it was tiring for museum visitors to stand around studying dense abstract graphics about housing or industrial production. So he developed a way of announcing what his charts were about by adding pictorial elements, while at the same time presenting the statistics in them. Neurath’s effort to make his charts “statistically accountable” was prescient, and should be remembered today by anyone (including me) who includes recognizable pictorial elements in their information graphics. Neurath didn’t want anyone to think he was just making pretty pictures, although he was deliberately using pictures to attract the public’s interest.

In 1925, Marie Reidemeister joined Isotype as the research link between Neurath’s broad-brush ideas and the artists who actually made the end products, most notably Gerd Arntz, who became part of the team in 1928. Marie was the team’s “transformer”—the person who researched and edited the data to best express the stories that Neurath wanted to show his audience.

The Italian archeologist Emmanuel Anati (b.1930) has proposed that early humans learned to identify animal and human tracks in snow. He argued that they learned to “read” before they could write. Neurath used a similar approach when he said that the best way to draw icons of things was to use silhouettes, or profile—side views—of the things being depicted. In the beginning, he even suggested making images by cutting them out of black paper. This forced the artists to keep their images simple. And silhouettes were like footprints, or shadows—“reflections” of reality—documentary evidence, left by the real thing.

Apart from encouraging simplicity when drawing or cutting icons, there were graphic guidelines for the statistical arrangement of the museum’s charts. Today it’s often the surface look of Arntz’s work that’s copied (relentlessly!), while the original principles behind the work is forgotten. (Personally, I think Arntz’s beautiful and humanistic work is a major reason for Isotype remaining influential today, and I completely respect Neurath’s rules for the pictorial arrangement of statistics.)

The guidelines are detailed in Neurath’s “International Picture Language,” published in 1936. The book is written in Basic English. This is a list of 850 words (an average dictionary has about 25,000) and rules for using them, compiled by C.K. Ogden, published in 1930. Basic was intended to simplify English and teach the language to non-speakers. Both Neurath and Ogden were on the same track: ease of communication across all languages.

The main Isotype guidelines

  • Instead of using the length of abstract bars to denote quantities, Neurath used small pictorial icons of the commodities (or people) being charted. All icons in a chart, whatever they were depicting, were drawn to be the same height and width (and visual weight), so that when lined up in rows, one row of icons does not visually outweigh the others. Neurath’s desire to make his charts “statisically accountable” meant that you can not only see the subject of the charts (by seeing the pictorial icons), but you could count the icons and know the quantity indicated. All the icons had to be visually balanced so that your eye didn’t “favor” one row over the others.

  • Perhaps the most important guideline is that a greater quantity of something (traditionally shown by a longer bar) should be represented by a greater number of icons, not by enlarging them.

  • For very large numbers, one icon could stand for many. Thus, if the legend on a chart said “one sign stands for 1 million,” then two icons represented 2 million, and so on. (Neurath, limited by Basic English, had to use the word “sign” for “icon.”)

  • Where possible, use a horizontal arrangement of icons rather than a vertical one.
  • Circles of different sizes are not good ways to show different quantities.

  • Many line, or fever, charts contain information that is useless, or misleading: the slopes between the plot points are just joining up the points, but contain no information. Bar charts are a truer representation of the data.
  • Other guidelines were about the use of color. Neurath advised a severely restricted use. (During his working life, he often had to do this for many projects, because only black and red were available.) It’s still good advice today, at least at the start of a project, even if there’s no limit to the colors ultimately available. For Neurath, color was strictly used for information, not decoration.

Robin Kinross, author (together with Marie Neurath, who died in 1986) of “The transformer: principles of making Isotope charts” (2009), notes that Isotype guidelines really were guidelines more than rules, and that the team approached each job with them in mind, and that “the principles were continually affected by the challenge of new tasks.” Kinross adds that the overall point of Otto Neurath’s Isotype was “to make something intelligible and interesting.” That’s a principle that should drive all information graphics and data visualizations.

Worth reading:

“International Picture Language,” by Otto Neurath. 1936

“Modern Man in the Making. 1939

“From Heiroglyphics to Isotype, a visual autobiography,” 2010 (Left unpublished at Neurath’s death in 1945.)

“The transformer: principles of making Isotype charts,” by Marie Neurath and Robin Kinross. 2009

“Gerd Arntz, graphic designer,” by Ed Annink and Max Bruisma. 2010


Next Monday, the final part of this series: Emojis and beyond.



Although gratuitous motion in infographics has come in for a lot of criticism, it’s still true that animation can be very effective in a visual explanation. Here are a few examples that succeed in terms of grabbing our attention, and explaining something.

Engage our audience. Fun, humor, a little showbiz. I’m fine with all that, as long as we are clearly communicating some information.

Above: From egg to baby, by Eleanor Lutz. (There are only nine frames in this file.) This was in my very first post, about the history of infographics, as an example of the current era. (

See more of Eleanor’s work here:

Below: How fast does a spacecraft travel? Clay Bavor puts that incredible speed into a context that works for us all.

Engine combustion by Jacob O’Neill. See the whole graphic here:

Who do Mexicans trust? By Pictoline:

More rubbish


I am finding far too many of these badly-conceived graphics in my collection. I could delete the files and pretend that I didn’t create them (“What food chart?”), or post the examples here and hope there is something positive that can be taken from them. We all learn from our mistakes, and I encourage my students to be adventurous, even if potential failure lurks in the shadows.

Concorde confusion Questions: Why does the color used for Concorde and the 747 keep switching around? Was my medication wrongly prescribed? There is an interesting use of boxes as well. I have trouble believing that I am responsible for this one. On second thoughts, it must have been done by someone else. Well, that’s a relief.

Catering nonsense There is, believe it or not, an underlying logic to the chart below. I wrote it all out on a piece of paper, so there must be. One chicken represents 200 lbs. One apple equals 6,000. (What?) These items cannot be compared, and it doesn’t make any sense as a chart. This is complete crap. Memo to curriculum committee: Do not let this person teach data visualization.

Styling takes over The next infographic (might be the wrong name for it) apparently explains and compares the cockpit systems of Airbus and Boeing. It’s a very poor graphic, but a very fine example of a heavy-handed stylistic idea ruining an explanation.

NO That’s my only comment on this wheel thing.