Experiences from an infographics assignment
It was the fall of 2018 in Boston and we had all completed our first assignments in the Information Design Studio class with one of my favorite faculty members, Prof. Douglass Scott. In the following assignment, we were all given a country and were asked to create information graphics for it, with a specific set of attributes of general importance. I got Ukraine as my country and I worked on my design for the next month and a half.
To begin with, we were given a list of 30 data points or variables (image below) we were to illustrate as part of the final deliverable. It did look overwhelming at first, however, Doug (yes, we call him Doug) reassured us by saying “don’t worry you will be doing it Bird-by-Bird like how Sally Roth ended up documenting all the backyard birds in America.”
The moment I saw the problem statement, my mind started churning - “Oh, I can turn this information in into bar charts, and this will look good in a pie chart .. and then I can turn this into maps. But wait, how will I organize all of these disjoint pieces of information?? What should I worry about first – the charts or the overall organization??” And, this has been a never-ending process for me. What comes first in a graphic design challenge with a lot of information to display? Is it the building blocks in the form of the information/charts design or the organizing principles themselves that provide the structure to the final design?
Let me break the suspense by showing you what I finally created before I take you through the long journey of how this came about.
This assignment opened the floodgates of knowledge about a country I knew very little about. Stepping out of this comfort zone is something I enjoy as a designer, i.e., every time I create something new I get to learn about cool new things.
Even before I started my ideation, I had taken a decision on two things that would guide my deliverable. First, I decided the size of the deliverable. I wanted to make it in the form of a large vertical poster so that it would work well in both print and digital media and, one could see the information all at once or by scrolling (if digital) in only one direction. Second, I wanted to incorporate Ukraine’s unique national colors of azure and gold in the poster. Fun fact: Ukraine is also called the breadbasket of Europe. Its fields have the blue skies and golden crops during harvest time just like the colors in its flag (as you can see below).
We were also asked to add more data points to the poster that we felt were relevant to the country. When I started reading more about this conflicted country, I learned that Ukraine has been at the center of a long ongoing cold (and not so cold) war between the west and Russia. Its strategic location and gas pipeline networks make it important for both Europe and Russia. However, in spite of this tug of war, Ukraine’s people cherish its independence and pray for peace. I thought it will be apt to show the gas pipeline network to highlight its importance to the Eurasian economies. Another data point that was standing out was the Russian population in the eastern and southern part of Ukraine. These areas (which include Crimea and Rebel-occupied regions) are also the ground zero for the forceful Russian takeover. However, it was interesting to note a high percentage of people of these states not wanting a unification with Russia. I found this article on Ukraine’s freedom struggle particularly interesting, worthwhile to read if anyone’s interested.
I created quick sketches to see how various data points could be visualized on the poster. I experimented with different types of charts and often questioned, which one would be apt for a given data set. At this stage, I also grouped the data points into meaningful categories such as land, people, economy, infrastructure and, communication.
For this assignment, I moved to digital tools rather quickly because that was the only way I would understand the data and made some charts in excel. I learned from this exercise that when you are designing for data, it is always a good idea to make quick charts with your data using tools like MS Excel, tableau, plotly.js or anything you find yourself comfortable with. It also helps you check the validity of your data sources — a step often ignored when working with large datasets. This exercise is helpful when you are trying to recreate them in illustrator or any other tool not meant for plotting directly.
Next step was to think of the underlying grid and the organizing principles. The explorations finally funneled down and I created the focus of the poster by showing conflict stories of Ukraine. I used maps, which were stacked in the center and looked as if they were projected from the world map placed at the bottom.
The first draft of the poster had a ‘really black’ background with a neon blue and yellow on the foreground. It used a 6 column grid to organize the content. I chose a black background because I wanted to use the yellow and blue color palettes highlighted firmly in the foreground.
However, when I printed it out, the black did not seem to work. It was too overpowering. I then decided to use a grey background with the blue and yellow palette. Grey always seems to work like magic for me. It made the design much more subtle and allowed me to highlight only the important areas. This is how my final color palette looked like.
However, the devil is in the details. As a designer, it is a good practice to think of all the things that could fail in your design and try to address them. For instance, in the religious affiliation section, the smallest percentages were too small to label, so I grouped them together into a single 11.5% block and, further divided this block into smaller segments (fig below left). I retained the same color to highlight the association between these two data points. Hence, I ended up enlarging that section to accommodate all the details. Similarly, in the communications section, the mobile phone subscriptions was 144 per 100 people. I was, however, using each bar to represent 100 people. I improvised by stacking the bar to denote the 144 per 100 subscriptions (figure below right).
I also decided to bring the title to the center so that it would help break the middle column and lead the user to read the middle column from bottom to top as compared to top-down like in the other columns. This decision helped in suppressing any possible perceived closure among the maps and kept them isolated for reader’s reference.
This project has some general design implications outside of the realms of data visualization. My takeaway is that the design process is about as fluid as it can get. The process is more like a guideline rather than strict steps one needs to follow. You can choose to make this process your own depending on the project. What works best is that you keep going back and forth(iterate-iterate-iterate) in the process until you feel right about how things are taking shape or you have reached a meaningful end. For instance, instead of directly working on the possible visualization styles, I religiously spent time exploring the raw data to understand the nature of the information I have.
You can find the Data and Icon References here.
Would love to hear your feedback in the comments.