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):

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.

Learn About Tableau

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.

Best of the visualisation web… January 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 January 2014.


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

WFP | Interactive globe from Santiago Ortiz displaying the country-by-country stories of donors and recipients involved in the World Food Programme (WFP)

The Refugee Project | “The Refugee Project is an interactive map of refugee migrations around the world in each year since 1975.”

Jehiah | Jehiah 13: An interactive personal report

Twitter | Interactive and animated map shows the range and volume of different terms surrounding the “tweeting happy new year around the world”

Tableau Public | Counting down the top 5 Tableau Public visualisations of 2013

FastCo Design | ‘A Reggae Song That Explains The 2013 Stock Market’. Really.

FastCoExist | ‘A Stunning Visualization Of Every Popular Protest Since 1979’

ConcertHotels | ‘From Gospel to Grunge: 100 Years of Rock in less than a minute’

BBC | ‘The seats which could decide the next election’

The Washington Post | ’40 more maps that explain the world’

Mapbox | ‘A woodcut inspired map for city streets’

Bloomberg | ‘Tracking super bowl ticket prices’ (Nice use of connected scatter plot)

Mashable | ‘These 10 Real-Time Visualizations Put the World in Perspective’

Guardian | ‘Burglaries in Australia: by the numbers’

Washington Post | ‘What’s in that image? Masterpieces like you’ve never seen them before’

Apple | ‘Celebrating 30 years since the introduction of the Macintosh’

Boston Globe | ‘A taxonomy of movie psychos: Psychiatrist Samuel Leistedt sorts the diagnosable cases from the villains of pure fantasy’

Washington Post | ‘History through the president’s words’

FlowingData | ‘Famous Movie Quotes’ poster: “The most memorable movie quotes selected by the American Film Institute, represented with charts”

PeopleViz | ‘Where are the Big Polluters since 1971?’

Twitter | Interactive streamgraph that breaks down the speech and reaction to the State of The Union address minute by minute on Twitter

New York Times | Animated/interactive small multiples profiling ‘A Stark Gap in Breast Cancer Deaths’

SCMP | Jane Pong and Cedric Sam look at the Australian Open 2014 ‘Road to victory’: “look at the paths of the top eight players in the tournament and the minutes they spent on the court”

NZZ | A visual portrait of snowboarder Iouri Podladtchikov


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

Wired | ‘Study: body mapping reveals emotions are felt in the same way across cultures’

Computing Now | ‘A snapshot of current trends in visualisation’

FastCo Design | ‘The 17 Most Amazing User Interfaces Of The Year’

New York Times | ‘Makeover for maps’: Interview with Stamen’s Eric Rodenbeck about how he is “trying to rethink how data is presented”.

Tow Center | ‘Making Data More Familiar with Concrete Scales’

FILWD | ‘The myth of the aimless data explorer’

Scientific American | Jen Christiansen describes how she “reconciled my love for art and science”

HBR | Kate Crawford discusses the ‘hidden biases in big data’

Slate | ‘Basketball, Football, and Hockey Are All the Same Game: What big data can teach us about our favorite sports’

Microsoft Research | ‘A Survey on Information Visualization: Recent Advances and Challenges’

Arxiv | Michael Friendly presents the ‘Golden Age of Statistical Graphics’, framing developments between 1850 and 1900 (ish)

Tableau | Jewel Loree tells everyone: ‘Why I blog and you should too’

EagerEyes | Robert’s annual ‘The State of Information Visualization’ for 2014

Futurearth | ‘Data visualization for science: the next frontier?’

EagerEyes | Robert starts off a five-part series on peer review in visualisation with a takedown of the much-discussed ‘quiltplot’

Simply Statistics | A response to the hate aimed at the quiltplot

FILWD | Enrico on ‘The Role of Algorithms in Data Visualization’

If We Assume | Discussing findings from an exploration into the ‘Readability of Tweets and their Geographic Correlation with Education’

VizNinja | Paul’s latest ‘2 minutes with…’ interview series, this with Kelly Martin of VizCandy

Michael Babwahsingh | Michael makes an appeal for a change in the conversation – “spending less time curating conversations and more time getting hands dirty in sensemaking” (paraphrasing)

Perceptual Edge | Bryan steps in for Stephen and discusses a redesign of one of Bill Gates’ favourite graphs

PJIM | ‘Visual Storytelling at the Graphics Department of The New York Times, by Sergio Pecanha’

Medium | ‘What The Longform Backlash Is All About: Taking the best of the magazine craft online. And leaving the rest on paper’

Learning & Development

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

Source | Behind the scenes design narrative of the New York Times digital re-design

Juice Analytics | ‘Reading Visualizations for Beginners’

Data to Display | ‘Communicating changes in rank over time: bumps charts and slopegraphs’

Policy Viz | ‘To Slope Chart or Not to Slope Chart?’

Nature Graphics | Dissecting the design challenge of presenting one million deaths on two pages

Junk Charts | Discussing ‘Losing the big picture’ – “you should focus less on comprehensiveness and focus more on highlighting the good data”

Richard Bedford | A case study to demonstrate using GIS for the uncovering of stories in data

Kutosis | ‘Tables, charts, paragraphs and narratives: We need to be both Type-A analysts and Type-B analysts’

Peter Smart | ‘It’s time to… Rethink the airline boarding pass’

Flowing Data | Need help to get your head around mapping projections… ‘Map projections illustrated with a face’

Knight Lab | ‘Behind the dialect map interactive: How an intern created The New York Times’ most popular piece of content in 2013’

Work Made for Hire | ‘How to Tell A Client How Much Something Costs’

Design Notes | Discussing the design process for working with Dataminr

School of Data | ‘Tutorial: Data Visualisation for Print’

Sociable Physics | ‘Data visualisation programming: a recap’

DataVizCatalogue | ‘The Data Visualisation Catalogue: Helping you display your data…’

Subject News

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

Visual Complexity | New Book: “The Book of Trees”, by Manuel Lima, available for pre-order

Graphical Web | ‘Call for Participation’ open for 3rd edition of the Graphical Web Conference

Amiando | Tickets now on sale for the Information Design Conference 2014, 7-8 April

VUDlab | ‘The Visualizing Urban Data Idealab (VUDlab) is a student-led organization formed at University of California-Berkeley’ with a mission ‘to yield research insights and assist decision-makers who confront the problems facing modern cities.’

VB News | ‘Chartio grabs $2.2M for simple but powerful data visualization’

UK Data Service | Newly discovered site: “The UK Data Service is a comprehensive resource funded by the ESRC to support researchers, teachers and policymakers who depend on high-quality social and economic data.”

Knight Foundation | Profiling the 24 projects that will receive new funding from the Knight Foundation

Google | ‘New Google Sheets: faster, more powerful, and works offline’

Guardian | ‘UK government plans switch from Microsoft Office to open source’


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

Designboom | Article profiling a visit to BIG architects new lofted/industrial studio in the district of valby, in the southwestern area of Copenhagen. Always interesting to peer behind the curtain at studios like this!

The Atlantic | ‘How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood’

Twitter | Graphically revealing how Luis Suarez posed questions for the Hull defence…

Creative Review | Breaking down the thinking behind the new logo for ‘Made in Britain’

BBC News | ‘The map that saved the London Underground’

Transom | Profiling Jonathan Harris’ manifesto titled ‘Navigating Stuckness’ described as ‘an autobiographical journey with teachable moments, following Jonathan’s path as a diarist, painter, storyteller, data artist, web visionary, etc’

BBC | ‘Presenting a warm front: 60 years of the British TV weather forecast’

See Your Folks | Calculating how many more times you will see your parents based on current visiting patterns.

EagerPies | ‘Pie in the Sky: The Dream of Big Data’

Twitter | ‘Guideline-poster for the illustrators of The Simpsons’

Wimp | ‘News report from 1981 about the Internet’

Twitter | 3D popup dataviz

FastCo Design | ‘Why Visa is Sick of Gold’

Slate | ‘Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.’

A short reflection about Tapestry Conference

They (human people) say the key to comedy is timing. Well timing is also a key factor with regards to blogging, certainly when covering particular subjects. So a write-up of Tapestry Conference 2014, which took place almost a week ago, is already tiptoeing sheepishly outside the ‘news cycle’. It feels especially redundant when others have already done a great job (Francis and Emily) of thoroughly covering the talks/main themes and double-especially redundant when the quality of my note-taking during the event must be declared unfit for purpose.


Rather than go through the talks with a forensic kit and capture ever key takeaway, I’m just going to whack a few comments out into the open using the gift that is the bullet pointed list. I want to try to express the event’s value on the data visualisation conference calendar and why you should definitely try to get to the next event in 2015.