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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Visual Mind Games : when the mind takes over and goes graphical

Posted on December 29, 2008. Filed under: Designers, English, History, maps | Tags: , , , , |

As most of the readers of this blog, you are already familiar with MindMapping (“carte heuristique”). In anticipation to the meetup of the French visual thinking community (Cafe Carto 2.0, last Dec. 17th in La Cantine, Paris) where all participants were asked to present themeselves via a map, I wanted to look at different “mapping” techniques. The MindMapping meme / school being quite strong in that community (and to some respects in France : see Petillant), I have been revisiting other visual mind games and found quite a few.



Guillaume Apollinaire

Cadavre Exquis by Prevert, Breton and Co


  • Another popular visual mind game is the doodle (“griffonnage” or “crayonnage” in French), that designer Dennis Hwang made a key part of the Google brand. During the last seminar I attended there were a good 5 doodlers in the room (at least that left their doodles behind them …). Not to be mixed up with the very useful meeting sscheduling tool, it is a key part of school age : who hasn’t doodled on his books or notebooks ? Many still do as an adult, during conferences, phone calls, etc… Some psychologists and cogniticians have dwelved on why we doodle, and what it tells about someone’s profile or state of mind (the “alphabet” of doodles.

Google doodles       Doodle notebook


  • Maybe the last game I found is rebus, a visual word puzzle. Like most games, often played in childhood, it enabled me to work with pictures, so that’s the technique I used for my map (see below). I later discovered that rebus generator http://www.rebus-o-matic.com/, but because mine is a mix of French and English … and I had specific images in my mind, I wouldn’t have used it anyway.


You Scie ouate aie mine : Vis sue ali a sion dés cône essence

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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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Mercator and its followers: maps as representation of reality and expression of point of views

Posted on October 18, 2007. Filed under: History, maps, opinion, photography |

I came across a nice map today in the Discover Magazine showing R&D spend per country. While I generally love such maps, I could not resist a strange feeling looking at this one, mainly because countries are so distorted that they are hard to identify (look at Japan on the right). The interactive version that is accessible doesn't give much more information. This is another example of bad design on a good idea: showing discrepancies to make a point.

World R&D expenditure 

For ages we have been used to the so-called "Mercator projection" world map. This is already a distorted view of the reality, a 2D "flat" representation of a 3D globe, but has been the standard for its numerous advantages for the navigation on the world's oceans, a key issue at the time (16th century). If you add the fact that  in our western world it is centered on the intersection of the Greenwhich meridian and the Equator, some areas of the world are extremely distorted (as said in Wikipedia "At latitudes higher than 70° north or south, the Mercator projection is practically unusable"), but we are used to it as it magnifies our leadership in the world. Of course if you look at world maps in other countries (take China and Russia for example), the view differs considerably …

 World map centered on the North Pole

This is yet another illustration of the importance of opinion / point of view in the representation and communication of information… as the current global advertising campaigne of HSBC.

Half full or half empty ? 

As I said earlier (see here and here), visual language is more "universal" than verbal language, but of course this is mostly true for some forms of visual language such as icons, pictos, graphs / matrix, schemas, and some more recent forms. This is far from being the case yet for photographs and colors (direct representation of nature), which signification can differ considerably from one culture to another … even if a certain convergence can be observed.

World map centered on the poleUpdate : I just came across (via Bertrand Keller) of the very good information design / mapping tool that provides worldmaps anamorphoses viewed from different perspectives. It was developped by Roxana Torre : PersonalWorldMap 

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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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