Talk slides from OpenVisConf 2014: The Design of Nothing

Below you will find an embedded slideshare version of the slides used in last week’s talk at OpenVisConf 2014 held in Boston (well, officially Cambridge but Boston was only a bridge away). The quality of the slide images hasn’t quite been preserved in the upload but you’ll get the idea at least. I’ve also dabbled with embedding videos into the slideshare deck.

As ever, the presentation slides are just visual props for a talk so you won’t be able to necessarily decipher the exact narrative that accompanied each subject. I was going to provide a detailed narrative similar to the wonderful way Jonathan Corum does. However, the video of the talk should be released soon and I have written a short article for the Harvard Business Review (publishing soon). I also might like to do the talk again at another opportunity…

Quick training workshops update

This is a boring, administrative, bullet-pointy post to share a few quick updates about my training workshops requiring more than twitter’s 140 characters limit:

  • My next workshop is on Friday 16th May in Montreal. There are still a number of places left for this event, read more and register here.
  • The Chicago workshop on Monday 19th May is sold out, sorry to anyone who wanted to attend but couldn’t make the list in time
  • There are a handful of places left on my London workshop on 29th May but these will go quickly. Details and registration here.
  • I am running a co-located training workshop on 9th June as part of EuroVis 2014 in Swansea, Wales. This cost of this event is incorporated into the full Conference Week registration or just the Co-Located Events registration. More details and registration here.
  • General Assembly London will be hosting me for a short 90 minute evening seminar on 14th July, details and registration here.
  • I have added an additional London workshop to my schedule on 7th August, details and registration here
  • I am now looking to receive suggestions for my next set of scheduled locations for the second half of 2014 so send me your wish list!

I will be launching my new website in a few weeks time and this will include a brand new training page and new offerings, including more longer and shorter forms of the workshops. Stay tuned…


What’s happened to the trust?

I’m posting this as a separate discussion thread but in follow up to the previous post about the Gun Crimes chart and the issue of confusion vs. deception. Taking a helicopter/big picture view of this discussion, Tom MacInnes has raised an excellent observation:


So many people have reacted so badly to that chart, I’m actually quite shocked.


Even with the designer’s own explanation (clearly showing the motive for the choice as being inspired by a design metaphor) there are still very angry and accusatory views out there, illustrated by this exchange:


What is it that causes such an evident lack of trust? Is it the subject matter of gun crimes that is inherently so emotive that anything that remotely creates confusion or leads to misreading is playing with fire? Is it the lack of trust about work emanating from the media? I would have thought that the provenance of this graphic coming from Reuters, with its international scope and (in my view) non-political leaning would be something that would remove some of the ire, but clearly not.

At the end of the day, clearly it is a good thing that there is a large (and growing?) audience out there capable of calling out graphics for potential shortcomings. Just maybe not necessarily with the quantity of pitch forks we’ve seen today and maybe directed less towards accusation of corrupt intent and more towards appreciation that a design choice maybe hasn’t quite worked out.

I have to say I feel a great amount of sympathy Christine having to read the volume of flak her work has led to. She has responded to the criticism positively (below) and I truly hope this doesn’t deter her or other designers from having the courage to occasionally pursue non-standard charting approaches.

The fine line between confusion and deception

Overnight I saw quite a few tweets spinning off an article ‘How to Lie with Data Visualisation‘. Initially, I mistakenly thought this had been written by Aatish Bhatia but it was actually from Ravi Parikh. It is a good article picking up on some of the classic subjects of our ire (Fox News, truncated y-axes).


I did, however, disagree with the inclusion of this graphic produced by Reuters.


I couldn’t see the ‘lie’ demonstrated by this graphic that would force it to join those others on the naughty step. For me to read it I look at the more red equals the more deaths. Focusing on the shape of the colour rather than the passage of the line reveals the changes over time and the y-axis labels support the fact that a higher vertical position means a lower count of deaths. Once again, for me, it was clearly just an upturned area chart used to achieve the metaphor of a blood effect, and likely inspired by the below graphic produced by Simon Scarr (then of the South China Morning Post now of Reuters).


Simple, right? Well, not necessarily. The response on twitter through some good discussions has largely been supportive of the article’s stance and less so on my seemingly contrarian view. (I feel like I’ve been here before…).

So here’s a few further observations and thoughts.

(1) I think a key discussion here is the distinction between confusion and deception. I’m not going delve too much into the semantics of language definition but my sense of the difference is that ‘deception’ is generally something you knowingly intend, ‘confusion’ is a by-product effect of something not being clear. I’m not necessarily defending or celebrating this particular graphic, I’m really remarking that, unlike some of these other cases, there isn’t anything in my experience reading the graphic that felt like deception.

This was further reinforced by seeing a reply from the designer, Christine Chan’s, to a question about the graphic.

(2) Everyone’s own reaction is entirely legitimate. Regardless of whether someone is telling you this is the best or the worst visualisation ever made, how you respond to it and how well you draw interpretations from it are entirely for you to resolve. I’m not defending me here, by the way, just saying we all have different responses based on all sorts of factors such as our experience, knowledge of a subject, interest in a subject, taste and graphical literacy

(3) The issue of graphical literacy is incredibly interesting and important. The ability to read and interpret chart types is something we are not trained to do. We ‘get by’ through experience, practice and exposure. Some people find different charts and graphics easier to read and interpret than others so there is rarely a common experience. As designers, our objective has to be to try help overcome any obstacles people might experience in the readability of our representations, either through our design choices or through explanatory annotations. I will be posting much more about one of my current projects working with a research team hosted at University of Leeds to explore this matter of graphical literacy amongst the general public.

(4) On a similar matter, I include the Iraq graphic in most of my training workshops (and it is admittedly in my top ten graphics ever). I am therefore especially familiar with and potentially more primed to ‘get’ a graphic that uses a similar device of the upturned dribbling blood effect without it having any misleading impact on me.

(5) Some great points were made about the effect of the area chart’s colours creating a figure-ground illusion that means we can naturally be drawn towards the dominant shape of the ‘white’ area chart (and in the upward direction we normally might expect an area chart to be directed) more so than the big area of colour. I didn’t experience this but clearly others have, particularly likely caused by the x-axis labels being at the bottom of the chart (thus almost framing the ‘white’ area chart). In contrast, several mentioned that the bar charts in the Iraq graphic almost ‘punctured’ this figure-ground illusion and had the x-axis labels across the top.

Anyway, here is a storify’d collection of responses. It in an interesting discussion to sustain I think.

Best of the visualisation web… February 2014

At the end of each month I pull together a collection of links to some of the most relevant, interesting or thought-provoking web content I’ve come across during the previous month. Here’s the latest collection from February 2014.


Includes static and interactive visualisation examples, infographics and galleries/collections of relevant imagery.

Data Remixed | ‘Visualizing History’ via a Presidential Gantt chart

New York Times | ‘Is That a Luge in Times Square?’

Fathom | ’2013 Year in Nike Fuel’

NZZ | Great long-form piece about snowboarder Iouri Podladtchikov – designed and developed by Interactive Things (check out the YOLO flip graphic)

xkcd | ‘Frequency’

Mappingteam | ‘A Diorama of Player Movement in Sport’ (see article link too)

Bloomberg | ‘Bubble to Bust to Recovery’ – nice multi-tabbed digital story

The Variable Tree | ‘London maps and bike rental communities, according to Boris Bike journey data’

Arthur Buxton | ‘Colourstories – colour in picture book narrative’

Science Mag | ‘Science and the National Science Foundation present the winners of the 2013 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.’

Flowing Data | ‘Using slime mold to find the best motorway routes’

Information Aesthetics | ‘Visualising Mill Road: Informing Communities by Infographics in the Street’

Refined Practice | ‘Visualising Ministerial Lobbying in the UK’

Moebio | ‘Life, the Universe, Everything: A Journey to the things that matter through Information Visualisation’

Hello Monday | ‘Into the Arctic’ – Take a journey into the Arctic through a hugely immersive digital documentary/story

Facegroup | ‘How Stuff Spreads: How Videos Go Viral part I’

New York Times | Winner of a gold at Malofiej 23, the interactive stories created for the Sochi 2014 coverage. Good grief.

Business Insider | The connected scatterplot is rebadged as the ‘swirlogram’

Geo Visualist | ‘One Chart that Explains Why Ukraine was Vulnerable to Revolution’

Brandon Rose | Summer Olympics: A visualization of participant countries’ actual Olympic performance measured against predicted performance estimated using GDP, population, and past performance.


The emphasis on these items is that they are less about visualisation images and are more article-focused, so includes discussion, discourse, interviews and videos

PolicyViz | The first of Jon Schwabish’s 8 (EIGHT) part overview detailing his experiences at Visualized conference

Scientific American | Great article by Jen Christiansen ‘Don’t Just Visualize Data—Visceralize It’

Hogeschool Utrecht | *Dreadful self-publicity klaxon* an video interview I gave data visualisation during my time at @ccjhu in Utrecht earlier in the year. Yes, I’d been out the night before.

SQL Server Blog | Article about the SQL Server Team’s thinking about data visualizations in relation to Power BI for Office 365

AEA | Great article from that man Schwabish (again) providing ‘An Economist’s Guide to Visualizing Data’ for the Journal of Economic Perspectives

FILWD | Enrico begins his excellent series of diary posts relating his experiences teaching information visualisation to students at NYU. To start with ‘Basic Charts’…

FILWD | …and here’s diary entry #2 ‘Beyond Charts: High-Information Graphic’

UX Blog | ‘Blind Spots, Blue Lights, and Campus Security’

Tableau Public | Andy Cotgreave compiles the ‘Most Influential Tableau-Related Blog Posts’

Nieman Journalism Lab | ‘The Guardian experiments with a robot-generated newspaper with The Long Good Read’…

The Long Good Read | …and another great and related piece on ‘Algorithmic newspapers and publishing’

Voilà | Oh man, this is turning into the Jon Schwabish show! (Jon, we should have made it $50, not $20). Anyway, here’s an interesting interview he gave with Francis Gagnon about his past, present and future in the field.

Voilà | And now another shout out for Francis, with his great round up of his experiences at Tapestry Conference 2014

The Economist | ‘Turning information into art’

Mother Jones | ‘This Map Does Not Show What Your State’s Favorite Band Is’

CIO | ‘What animated movies can teach you about data analysis’

Axismaps | ‘In Defense of Bad Maps’

Sensory Maps | ‘Design Dimension on BBC Radio 4 – Design & Desire through Smellwalking’ (Sadly, I think this may have now dropped off the schedules)

Perceptual Edge | ‘Are Mosaic Plots Worthwhile?’

Maarten Lambrechts | More discussion (in Dutch, but google translate is good) about plagiarism in data visualisation (this one is screemingly blatant!)

Untapped Cities | ‘Beautiful Maps, and the Lies They Tell, An Op-Ed From Runkeeper’

Visualized | Emerging collection of videos of the talks from this year’s Visualized event

FastCo Labs | ‘This Is What Happens When Publishers Invest In Long Stories’

Learning & Development

These links cover presentations, tutorials, learning opportunities, case-studies, how-tos etc.

Source | ‘How we made “Behind the Bloodshed”: Behind the scenes with USA Today and Gannett Digital’

MIT Sloan | Process narrative from Damien Saunder describing ‘How We Made Nadal’s Interactive Game Tree’ | Peter describes the process of creating *that* YOLO graphic

Vallandingham | ‘Let’s Make a Bar Chart with Lyra’

Junk Charts | Great piece by Kaiser ‘Knowledge in the chart and knowledge in the head’

Google Datasense | ‘This self-paced, online course is intended for anyone who wants to learn more about how to structure, visualize, and manipulate data.’ (whoops, the course closes on 4th April. Today is 4th April, get on it now)

ATH Creative | ‘My answer to the question: “So, what do you do?” (Part 2)’

Postgraphics | ‘Behind the Scenes: Mountains of the Olympics’ | A summary of Jonathan Corum’s talk at the second Visualized conference: ‘The Weight of Rain’

Density Design | ‘Contropedia: Visualizing controversial topics on Wikipedia’

Fathom | ‘Game on! Data, in its multiple forms, can range from the very abstract to the most tangible. We tend to be type-agnostic, but recently a particularly clear set of data caught our eye: real-time position tracking for sports events.’

Subject News

Includes announcements within the field, brand new sites, new (to me) sites, new books and generally interesting developments.

Eager Eyes | Launching, the ‘Directory of News Visualizations’

Dataveyes | Nice new site design from the good folks at Dataveyes

Stanford | Stanford scientists put free text-analysis tool (‘etcML’) on the web

Silk | ‘We just launched the new Explore page, which greatly improves the way you can visualize and filter the information on any Silk.’

Territory | Newly discovered site for ‘Territory Studio’ an independent, creative agency based in London working on some incredible design, motion and digital projects (particularly of interest those high-end works for Hollywood movies)

Think Insights | ‘Datagrams: Animated Instagram videos, created in real time with US Open stats.’

Amazon | New book: “Infographics: Human Body”, by Simon Rogers, Jenny Broom and Peter Grundy

ProPublica | ‘The ProPublica Data Store: ProPublica is making available the datasets that power our data journalism’

VenutureBeat | ‘Knowledge-based programming: Wolfram releases first demo of new language, 30 years in the making’

Github | New site: A single collection of the interactive data projects developed by Twitter

Palladio | New tool: ‘Palladio’ (beta) – ‘We are building a tool for data visualization in the humanities, help us improve it!’

UW Interactive Data Lab | New tool: Introducing ‘The Lyra Visualization Design Environment (VDE)’ | New tool: – ‘Use to present your data in ways that have previously only been available to teams of dedicated developers and designers’


Any other items that may or may not be directly linked to data visualisation but might have a data/technology focus or just seem worthy of sharing

The Functional Art | ‘Bill Gates emulates Hans Rosling’

Storyteller Game | Storyteller – A game about building stories

ProPublica | ‘Non-Profit Journalism: Issues around impact’

Devart | ‘Play the world: Visitors are invited to perform with a keyboard that finds samples with the same note in realtime from web radio stations from around the world, essentially allowing them to play the world.’

Spritz | Reading re-imagined: ‘Spritz’s mission is to change the way people read and make communication faster, easier, and more effective.’

Twitter | ‘I vote yes to this map’

Twitter | ‘As New York installs its first interactive subway maps, a reminder that Paris has had them since 1937′

Wonkviz | ‘Should I make a nested pie chart?’

Twitter | ‘Family game console from JC Penney, 1976′

Twitter | ‘Far too many ‘programming tutorials’ are like this’

Dean McNamee | ‘Bar Portraits: Image processing and portrait vectorization’

Request for your 6-second acting skills!

As I mentioned in my previous post, many moons ago, I am giving a talk at the OpenVisConf in 3 weeks’ time. The title of my talk is ‘The design of nothing’ and in this last post I reached out for people to send in stories or examples related to this matter.

I now have a follow up request that might not get the same volume of responses but let’s see how we go. I want you to do some acting for me!

*** Update: I have received loads of great vines. There are a few people who have been in touch and are still planning on doing a spoken video soon, otherwise, I would now just ask for silent vines/short videos of people shaking their heads, holding a frowned expression, demonstrating confusion and disgust at this potential subject. Thanks for your help! ***


Below are the tweets I just posted to invite people to record and send me a 6 second vine video selfie for me to (hopefully) include in a particular section of my talk. I want people to say the words ‘The design of nothing?’ in a very confused and dismissive way (as in, why would anyone talk about the design of nothing, this is madness?!). Ideally I would like to get as many different non-english languages as possible.

For more guidance, I would say spend 2/3 seconds saying the words then the remainder of the 6 seconds shaking your head/holding a confused look. But I don’t want to cramp your creative style so feel free to express yourself.

Hopefully we’ll have enough submissions to make up a nice video wall otherwise I might be forced to do some acting of my own (nobody wants that) or indeed approach some innocent people off the street/in airports (the authorities don’t want that). If there are too many then I will politely inform people to stand down (I don’t anticipate that though!)

So, just imagine, your face, your acting skills, on the big stage: being projected on to a screen at the hottest conference to hit Boston this year. It’s also Friday so there’s nothing better to do at work, is there?

As Andy Warhol didn’t say, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 6 seconds”.

The design of nothing: Contribute examples to my OpenVisConf talk

In one month from now the 2014 OpenVisConf will be held in Boston, MA. Having watched coverage of the inaugural 2013 conference from afar (check out the highlight reel and watch the talks, it looked super) I am thrilled to be one of the chosen few to join the speaker line-up for this year’s two-day event.

Even had my talk proposal not been successful, I would have tried to find a way to attend. With names like Mike Bostock, Lena Groeger, Jason Sundram, Eric Fischer, Lisa Strausfield, Arvind Satyanarayan, Rob Simmon, Jen Christiansen, Marian Dörk and Kennedy Elliot, to name but a few, it promises to be another enlightening event. Congratulations to Irene and the rest of the committee for curating such a great looking event: I will do my best to warrant my invite!


My talk is titled ‘The Design of Nothing: Null, Zero, Blank’. Whilst the prospect of discussing the matter of ‘nothing’ might sound like a curious choice, I believe it will cover a topic that poses an interesting challenge frequently faced by any designer regularly working with data. Here is the more detailed abstract to give you a bit more background:

Making the visible invisible and the invisible visible will be the theme of this talk. Specifically, I will explore two sides of the design challenge posed by portraying and presenting ‘nothing’.

First, the talk will examine the challenge of representing null and zero, two very different states that can offer valuable insights. How does one most effectively encode the absence of a value? How do you make ‘nothing’ visible? What can we learn from the absence of data compared to the presence of data? What are some of the most enduring representations of ‘nothing’?

Second, the talk will investigate the oft-neglected power of emptiness. Blank space is a vital design component but requires sound judgement, restraint and a good deal of courage. Used well, it can unlock the perception of pattern, form and arrangement as explained by Gestalt Psychology.

We will examine some of the key considerations and see examples of both the good and the bad.

Whilst I already have plenty of content to cover, I do find that any talk is unquestionably enriched by the inclusion of as many different examples and sources of insight as possible. I would therefore like to open up an opportunity for you to share your examples and experiences and I’d love to have as many different analysts, designers and developers out there contributing examples against of the following matters (fully credited and attributed, of course):

  • Occasions when you have had to visualise ‘zero’ and what solutions you arrived at?
  • Situations in which the absence of data (the ‘nulls’) provided insight, more-so than the presence of data?
  • Examples of when you have specially utilised blank space to optimise the impact of your design?

If you have an example of how you have faced any of the above (whether successfully resolved or otherwise, not just looking for success stories!) then please do get in touch via email:

Incidentally, the reason for me being in the area for OpenVisConf is that I am running one of my one-day training workshops in Boston on Wednesday 23rd April, the day before the conference commences. If you are interested in attending, at the time of writing, there are a few places remaining so do come along!

Nice story about the impact of a visualisation

This morning I tweeted an interesting observation made on BBC News discussing the missing Malaysian airline “We are now not used to no information”. It is entirely true. In this age of so much, any gaps become so extraordinary.

I was thinking about this in another way. For those of us with the awareness and capability, the thought of not visualising data – seeing data for new degrees understanding – would be kind of unthinkable. It is easy to forget that this is not the automatic thought for everyone.

I recently heard back from Alexis, a delegate who attended one of my recent training courses, sharing a nice story about how visualising some data had made a difference to her in a small but very real way.

I have type one diabetes and I need to keep my blood glucose levels within a certain range to stay healthy and avoid long-term complications. High blood glucose levels over a long period can lead to blindness and kidney failure, among other things. Low blood glucose can make me shaky and confused. Extreme highs and lows can lead to diabetic coma, so it’s really important for me to monitor my blood glucose levels and keep them as close to my targets as possible.

I test my blood glucose level and inject insulin four times a day – before each meal and before I go to bed. I record the results either in a written diary or electronically using an app. I need to look for patterns to see if there are times of the day when I’m high or low, suggesting I need to take more or less insulin. I’ve always struggled with numbers and find it difficult to identify patterns. After doing the data visualisation training I decided to have a go at plotting the results in a graph.

Let me pull out that last line for dramatic emphasis: ‘After doing the data visualisation training I decided to have a go at plotting the results in a graph.’


The graph showed me that Tuesday to Saturday my blood glucose goes up after breakfast to well above my target range of 4.5–8 mmol/l. This tells me I need to take more insulin before breakfast to bring it down. It generally comes down in the evening and overnight so I’m not planning to make any adjustments here at the moment. I play badminton on Saturdays and go to the gym on Sundays. Exercise often has a delayed effect on my blood glucose, bringing it down the following day. This is reflected in the unusual patterns on Sunday and Monday where it dips instead of rising after breakfast.

To overcome the annoying nature of Excel and time dimensions in charts, I’ve just thrown the data in a Tableau public worksheet to recreate the very same chart but make the x-axis handle four readings across the time of day rather than as four discrete values.

Here’s Alexis’ final comment:

I have to look at tables of figures for a long time before I can see patterns but this simple graph quickly gave me a much clearer picture of what’s going on. I’m going to try and repeat it every week and aim to get the lines a bit straighter, and within the target range.

That’s a really nice story and thank you to Alexis for sharing it. Hopefully others out there will no of people in a similar situation to Alexis who might benefit from a similar simple approach to visualising their health-related data and ‘seeing it’ in a new form.

(Let me be clear, by the way, I’m not claiming the training led to Alexis’ epiphany! Instead it was her just thinking about the possibility of visualisation and being aware of what visualisation could do even in the most seemingly simple of situations. Thinking differently made this happen.)

Visualisation style guide at the Sunlight Foundation

I was really interested to see the Sunlight Foundation share details of its internal ‘Data Visualization Style Guidelines’ the other day.


Whilst I’ve not had chance to take a magnifying glass to the specific details of advice, I am impressed with how they have framed this document:

This guide is meant to be a starting point for creating data visualizations for this organization. “Data Series” like the 1% of the 1% may have their own twist on these foundations. Visualizations that pertain to a particular project, like the 5 year review of Political Party Time, may also have variations on these standards. Feel free to use these as a starting point, and do what makes sense for your particular data. Please remember to respect the data as you go forth into the wonderful, but often confusing, world of turning numbers into visuals.

Note the two main takeaways: This guide is a ‘starting point’ and remember to ‘respect the data’. Terrific stuff.

As well as covering the general layout, branding, type and colour identities, the guideline helpfully profiles the general dos and don’ts for several key chart types.


I like how they outline the use of a pie chart, with the term ‘sparingly’. The map advice, similarly, is very sensibly positioned to steer you in this direction only when the primary component of your portrayal is a geographic significance.


I’m sure this is just a starting point of guidance from which the content will mature in breadth as more and more practitioners become confident and familiar with further chart types.

I’ve seen very few of these in the public domain before, indeed only the profile of the USA Today/Column Five work springs to mind, so it is great to see this shared with the wider world.

Any organisation looking to optimise its data visualisation capabilities would be advised to consider this kind of light touch approach: something that manages to balance constructive instruction without over prescription. By taking away some of the groundwork thinking and fine-tuning design pain that many chart makers will experience, this should be viewed is a sensible development. Furthermore, it helps to create a consistent look-and-feel across the board of visual output which is often a key concern for many organisations.

Do you have an example of a visualisation style guide you can share?

Quick update on the site

Just a little update about things relating to this site.

I am currently working behind the scenes with a couple of bright design and developer minds on a brand new website and design identity. There is no set deadline because it will be launched when it is right and not before. However, I am generally aiming for an end-of-April timeframe.


During this period the blog posts will continue as normal. Normal, at the moment, being a mixture of flood and famine. Famine may take over as I get closer to relaunch time.

Otherwise, apart from details and status updates for my scheduled training events, the rest of the site’s content will likely remain as-is. I have a ton of extra resources to add to my collection but I am going to save these for the re-launch as I will have a brand new interactive resources page to utilise. I have so many more testimonials, ‘previous clients’ and different offerings to add but these will be incorporated into the new design.

Thanks for your continued support and look forward to going live with the new site.