Crisis for dummies : a selection of cool infographics to help understand and explain further (Part 1)

Posted on March 3, 2009. Filed under: Bibliographie, English, History, Medias, Research, Video |


Crisis : we hear and read about it everyday … but it is hard not to get lost, not to lose track of events or context or historical background, and hard to understand as events unfold the links between them, the play of multiple actors’ interests, and untimately, hard to anticipate, plan for personal or business needs. This is expecially true as the news we get are … well news only ! Bits and pieces of a puzzle we get at some point of our day, sometime without the time to reflect and integrate these.

I have blogged before about 4 aspects of the modern media system (speed, image, multiplicity and “thunderingness” as French politician Michel Rocard put them) and how visualization could provide that added value to provide context, particularly difficult on TV. It was followed by a discussion with him via email and a presentation I made for my students on story telling and visualization. A growing part of the population got accustomed to managing multiple information feeds at the same time, which reflect in specific layout designs for TV news (see here) or enterprise dashboards (see Stephen Few’s very good book on the latter : “Information Dashboard Design“).

 So I turned to economics and information visualization leading press outlets (Financial Times, New York Times, The Economist, French magazines Le Point, L’Expansion, …), TV news services, blogs and document sharing sites (Slideshare, Vimeo,  …) to collect a few of the most self-explanatory examples I could find. I have organized them in different categories :

  • History : trends and cycles

  • Stock Markets  :  graphical analysis and company valorization

  • Politics : public plans and social issues

But first, let’s start with an explanatory video (via Coolinfographics) :


The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.


It remembers me (in a nicer way of course) of one presentation (subprime primer) I got via email some months ago, to explain what sub-primes, CDO, CDS etc… mean, with simple sketches / a cartoon of a banker talking to another banker and devising the sub-prime scheme. In such cases email attachments are still the best way to circulate documents 🙂

Today I will publish the first part :

History :

Business cycles are commonly known since their creation in the XIXth century (notably by French statistician Clement Juglar, but also Kondratief, Kitchin, etc…). Periods of growth and decline follow each other, and looking at it from different “zoom” levels allow for a better understanding of the context.

In the case of the current crisis, several sets of data are to be looked at, whether they represent cause or effect I will not get into the debate, I have just chosen them because they are self-explanatory and in a way they enhance the dramatic aspects of the current situation. If I have not chosen less dramatic charts, it is because I wanted to make a point (like I did with “An Inconvenient Truth”) : the editorial decision to pick one or another, to zoom on a detail, change the scale, etc… plays a key role in conveying a certain message for certain benefits.

 US Housing market

We see that trees (here housing prices), can climb to the sky 🙂


That a very clever ;-( financial innovation (sub-prime lending in CDO) definitely had a big success

US Debt to GDP

And that it happened in a liberal context of massive national debt growth, all that money coming from foreign investors.

 Decoupling finance from the economy

That somehow the link between those CDS/CDOs and the “real” market got lost in mad speculation, a loop feeding on itself

Credit vs GDP

So the real ratio of debt to GDP was somehow worse …

 Share of Financial Industry profit

And it was clear who was getting the larger share …


A process called “financialization” everybody thought was the sign of developped countries like us ;-(

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Never got lost in history ? Dates, names, alliances, places, when visual design makes it easy to follow

Posted on November 3, 2008. Filed under: Bibliographie, English, History, Time line, Video | Tags: , , , , , , |

Remember the history you used to learn at school ? The Egyptians dynasties, the French kings, the European alliances : there were ways to learn lists of dates and names by heart, sometimes using mnemotechnical gimmicks (PO GLACE for the 7 capital sins – works only in French, or a little poem for the number Pi “car j’aime à faire connaitre un nombre utile aux sages, immortel Archimede artiste ingénieur, qui de ton jugement peut priser la valeur …”). Or there were the visual design tools …

The first one I used was comics : “l’Histoire de France en Bandes Dessinées”. It was recently republished by Larousse and Le Monde newspaper. My history teacher would give us black and white prints / copies, that we had to colorize (I was 10) : it sure helped me to remember a lot 🙂 Later I got more involved with comics and moved to historical series like “Alix“, then “Les 7 Vies de l’Epervier“, and more recently Marjane Satrapi for Persepolis and her own vision of the Iranian revolution.

Histoire de France en bandes dessinées

The second tool I discovered / used was timelines, visual representations of historical chronologies. A French editor (Maurice Griffe) is specialized in these, and you can find them (often in a foldable format) at every historical landmark’s souvenir shop, or a selection here.

Frise chronologique Maurice Griffe

There’s even a wiki version for easy editing of timelines called … EasyTimeline 🙂


Then of course there are the historical atlas. The best known to French students if the Historical Atlas from Georges Duby, but a field that lends itself especially well to that sort of visualization is geostrategy, as for example Yves Lacoste’s Geopolitical Atlas. There’s also an Atlas collection by Les Editions Autrement looks at many major historical landmark through the Atlas / mapping eye.

Atlas historique mondial Georges Duby Atlas geopolitique Yves Lacoste Atlas de la Chine contemporaine, editions Autrement

The number of books that relied heavily on infographics seems to have picked up lately, with editorial success such as XXI, a quarterly magazine approach brought to the book sector, or separate initiatives in a more “encyclopedian” way, such as “Comprendre l’actualité par l’image” (by well known French infography agency Idé), or l’Encyclopédie Visuelle VU by Gallimard, also editing the beautiful travel guides “Encyclopédie du Voyageur“, similar to the Eyewitness travel guides sold in English speaking countries.

XXI #2 Les Nouveaux Visages de l'Economie Comprendre l'actualité par l'image, Idé Encyclopédie visuelle des sports Guides Gallimard

And I recently watched a video made by a local TV channel for Paris 2nd arrondissement (QNTv), that presented the history of the Jean Sans Peur Tower. Nice infographic job, that follows the narrator’s speech in sync to explain how Jean Sans Peur is related to other key historical figures. Imagine you could get such videos for major monuments accessible on your mobile phone or on a wireless video player that would be rented for a Paris city tour : wouldn’t that be great ?

L’histoire de la tour Jean sans Peur
envoyé par QNTV

Comics, time lines, atlas, infographics encyclopedia, infographics videos : many ways knowledge can by designed to facilitate understanding and transfer.





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A short history of information design : people, dates and designs

Posted on August 9, 2007. Filed under: Bibliographie, Designers, English, History |

I have wanted for a long time to write down this short history. It is a work in progress as it needs some patient tracking to verify some claims 😉 and it needs to be completed for there are some more important pieces missing !!

I have ranked them in historical order :

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), England, natural philosopher, theologist, political theorist, and educator. He designed a timeline chart (1765), with bars to indicate longevity of famous people. More info on Wikipedia.

Preistley's timeline chart

William Playfair (1759-1823), engineer and economist, is credited with inventing data draphics (time series 1786, pie chart 1801, and bar charts). More info on Wikipedia

The Economist : an image worth a thousand words

Charles-Joseph Minard (1781-1870), inspecteur général des Ponts et Chaussées, who is probably E. Tufte’s favorite, is credited with inventing the flowchart to depict Napoleon’s retreat from Russia (1861). More details on Wikipedia.

Retreat from Russia

John Snow (1813-1858), physician specialist in epidemiology, used simple mapping to display statistical evidence from cholera outbreaks to point out the role of water sources (1854). More information on Wikipedia.

Cholera map

Unknown (Touring Club de France). The first documented apparition of a traffic sign was 1894 on the RN7 by Cannes. First designed for people riding bicycle, it quickly proved necessary to organize automobile’s birth. It was quickly made mandatory in Paris (1904) and became an international standard staring 1909 (successive iterations and new signs). More info here, here, here, here and here.

Neuhaus vitracier Japy around 1932

Otto Neurath (1882-1945), philosopher, sociologue and economist, created a system of practical signs (stick figures) to convey quantitative information and formalized his thinking in the Isotype (1930). More information on Wikipedia.

Isotype Home and Factory Weaving in England

Otto Aicher (1922-1991), graphical designer. He designed the pictograms used for the 1972 Munich Olympics. First attempts had been made at the Tokyo Olympics before but it was Aicher’s pictograms which stayed as a normalized system to describe sports. More information on Wikipedia.

Olympics picto

Carl Sagan (1934-1996), astronomer and astrobiologist. He designed with Frank Drake (1930-xx) the so-called Pioneer Plaque. A graphical representation of key current human scientific knowledge was printed on a metal plaque that was sent on the Pioneer spatial probe in search for an extraterrestrial intelligence. More info on Wikipedia.

Pioneer Plaque

Susan Kare (1954,xx), graphic designer. She designed the first icons for Apple Computer’s new Macintosh operating system between 1983 and 1986. Those ‘pixelart’ icons together with the graphical interface surely paved the way for the widespread adoption of personal computing. More info on her website and on Wikipedia.

Early Macintosh icons

And finally Edward Tufte (1942-xx), statistician and political economist. His contribution to information design can not be yet valuated but judging from the number of the books he wrote and how he is referenced throughout the InfoViz community … More info on Wikipedia.

For more on the history, I have found quite a few papers on the web, starting with this one and this one from the same authors.

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Simple graphic user instructions : the “pill bag” of the NGO Medecins sans Frontieres

Posted on August 7, 2007. Filed under: Bibliographie, English, instructions |

I am a fan of simple instructions, most of them relying on images / graphics only, such as Ikea's or Lego's. Pat Hanrahan and Barbara Tversky from Stanford University have done a lot of good research on that subject. See also the very good book from graphic designer Paul Mijksenaar Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design . Graphic instructions are knowledge design at their best !!

Example of Lego instructionsIkea instructions 

Last June I was traveling by TGV and there was an exhibition in the train by the well known international NGO "Medecins sans Frontieres" (with French origins : the so-called French doctors). They were explaining who they were and the type of missions they were doing and had brought with them some paraphernalia.

I was especially interested in a few of them like this "pill bag" that display very useful instructions in a unequivocal way.

MSF pill bag

Doctors need their medicine to be taken the right way, no matter what language the patient speaks, or if he is able to read or not. By using this little plastic bag, they can deliver the right number of pills and indicate how many and when a pill needs to be taken. Such a bag is cheap to produce and can be used in the millions worldwide.

Other examples of simple and standardized instructions are the apparel / clothing care instructions  I had to battle with as a marketer trying to design one that would be accepted in all European countries in addition to the US. Just because all countries need some translation of the graphic signs, most apparel manufacturers' labels are in some benign way illegal (just imagine peeling 3 or four labels in your neck …, because that's what would be required to comply with French, Greek, Portuguese, etc … language and labeling laws). The label below does for example not comply with regulations that require the information of the manufacturer's name and address, has not been translated in any local language … Technically this product could be seized by any authority in Europe (except perhaps in the UK ;-)), but end up being sold anyway.

Care instructions label

I will come back with more on such design standards in a future post. They are in essence a universal language. See my previous post on this.

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John T. Drew & Sarah A. Meyer « La gestion de la couleur : guide exhaustif à l’usage des graphistes”

Posted on September 26, 2006. Filed under: Bibliographie, Francais |

Everything you always wanted to know about colour, its history, why use one vs another, … A must for all graphic designers also exists in a French version :

John T. Drew & Sarah A. Meyer, « La gestion de la couleur : guide exhaustif à l’usage des graphistes », 2005, Editions Pyramid

 See also the user guide on InfoVis :

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Chaomei Chen : Information Visualization

Posted on September 26, 2006. Filed under: Bibliographie, Francais |

Un excellent livre qui fait le point sur l'état de l'art des techniques informatiques de visualisation d'information.

"Information Visualization : Beyond The Horizon", second edition, 2006, Springer Verlag 

je valide l’inscription de ce blog au service Paperblog sous le pseudo adebuche

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