Information Design Watch

January 16, 2008, 12:48 pm

Rate the Flags

By Henry Woodbury

Here’s an entertaining effort to rank the quality of national flags:

To my surprise, there is no international body responsible for upholding simple standards of vexillilic aesthetics. Nor do the UN or Interpol have the power to call in and punish those responsible for such atrocities as the Brazilian or Cypriot flags. I suppose there is probably a conspiracy of rich western nations (those with permanent seats on the UN security council, no doubt) to prevent such crimes from being brought to justice; however, in the meantime I am giving letter grades to the existing flags of the world.

Falkland Islands Flag

There’s a sound methodology (Rule 1: Do not write the name of your country on your flag), and a list of common failings, leading to grades such as this D minus, for the Falkland Islands:

Colonial nonsense
Graven images
Too busy

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Design

January 9, 2008, 4:06 pm

Nightingale’s Rose

By Henry Woodbury

Two ways of reading the word area — its general vs. its mathematical meaning — leads to confusion in this otherwise superb article on Charts in the Economist. The chart in question is Florence Nightingale’s “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East.” The data is plotted by month in 30-degree wedges. In each month, red represents deaths by injury, blue death by disease, and black death by other causes:

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East

The Economist explains how to interpret the diagram:

As with today’s pie charts, the area of each wedge is proportional to the figure it stands for, but it is the radius of each slice (the distance from the common centre to the outer edge) rather than the angle that is altered to achieve this.

Herein lies the confusion. In fact, the areas of the wedges are not proportional. The data actually maps to the radius of each wedge. It appears that in her annotation, Nightingale used the word area in the generic sense of section or range. The great sweep of blue around the center of each chart is an artifact of the unusual radial plot. Perhaps unintentionally, Nightingale overdramatized the facts that made her case.

Our Creative Director, Piotr Kaczmarek, recalibrated Nightingale’s chart to correct this error. The diagram below uses all the elements of the original, but makes the data proportional to area:

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, Adjusted

Nightingale’s diagram, often referred to as Nightingale’s Rose or Nightingale’s Coxcomb, represents one of the inherent risks in visual explanation. An image may be so visually interesting — so iconic (a rose, a coxcomb) — that we assume its conclusions without examining its data.

This is better: a stacked bar chart that introduces a scale (!), more readable labels, and a single chart for the entire 1854-1856 period. These changes provide context and continuity, and make clear the two campaigns of the war:

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, Stacked Bar Chart

UPDATE (January 14, 2008): In the comments, hstern recommends separating the three data types to allow better comparison. As it happens, Piotr created that chart as one of his alternatives to the radial plot. I’ve uploaded it below.

Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East, Bar Chart

UPDATE (November 22, 2010): In a BBC News Magazine article titled “Diagrams that changed the world” Marcus du Sautoy includes a link to this post. Welcome BBC readers!

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Comments (17) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Visual Explanation

January 2, 2008, 11:10 am

American Physical Society Launches Dynamic Diagrams Redesign of Physical Review Letters

By Lisa Agustin

The American Physical Society’s flagship journal, Physical Review Letters, has a new look and feel, thanks to a redesign by Dynamic Diagrams. Along with an updated masthead, the redesign features clearer navigation options, quick access to content from the current issue via a tabbed interface, and a snapshot of the latest news and most cited papers. As part of the PRL redesign, Dynamic Diagrams also designed a sub-site to commemorate the journal’s 50th anniversary, which includes an interactive timeline of notable papers and events since 1893. PRL’s new visual design is part of a larger effort to create a new visual design system that will be applied to eight additional journals and the APS Journals umbrella site. Redesigned versions of these sites will be launched in the coming months.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Scholarly Publishing, Web Interface Design