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Natural talent: an interview with the creator of “Nature by Numbers”

One of the outstanding infographics of 2010 was Cristóbal Vila’s “Nature by Numbers.” After the video was featured in the Data Drop’s opening series of posts, I made contact with Mr. Vila by email. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions. Mr. Vila runs a one-person design shop called Eterea Studios from his hometown of Zaragoza, Spain. He is actively seeking new clients.

Data Drop: What inspired you to create “Nature by Numbers”? Do you have a background in mathematics?

Cristóbal Vila: There are a lot of things that I find interesting. Nature and Mathematics (especially Geometry) are two of them. And joining these both interests was the origin of Nature by Numbers. No, I don’t have any special background in Mathematics. No more than any other guy who went to school.

DD: I’m curious about the soundtrack. Did you approach Wim Mertens about “Often a Bird” before you made the video, or did you get his permission afterward? How important is the choice of music to the video?

CV: In this case I chose the soundtrack at a very early stage in the animation process. This way I can better synchronize images with music. I consider music more or less the 50% of the final effect. If you have great images and a bad (or unfortunately chosen) music, the result is painful. On the other hand, a big soundtrack with poor images is pathetic. The difficult task is to find the appropriate music: there are great themes that could not work at all with your images, and vice versa.

DD: How long does it usually take you to make an animation? What’s the most challenging part of the process? The easiest?

CV: It depends totally on the animation (they are all different): Nature by Numbers was a personal project, not a commission, and for this reason I can work very calm and relaxed, unhurried. Since I developed the first script to the final post-produced movie, it took me 12 months, more or less. Obviously that wasn’t a full-time dedication. I passed 2-3 months on commercial commissions without opening one NBYN file.

The most challenging part was the research and development I had to do in order to animate all things “procedurally”, without using keyframes. It’s a kind of visual programming. The nautilus shell modeling was a challenge too: that interior part was really complex [ed note: see still image, above]. The easiest part in NBYN? Maybe texturization. That was not a difficult part on this creation.

DD: If you could recommend one piece of software to graphic designers, what would it be? Why?

CV: For 2D+“Static” Graphic Designers: Adobe Illustrator. Why? Simply put: it is a tool specially conceived for Graphic (and typographic) Designers, so powerful and so easy. For 2D+Motion Graphics Designers: [Adobe] AfterEffects. Very powerful, all is animatable, lots of filters and a great community on the Internet to help you. For 3D+Motion Graphics Designers: [MAXON] Cinema 4D. It’s robust, intuitive, powerful and easy to use. And for any kind of designer there is “the” tool. The ESSENTIAL tool, of course: Photoshop.

DD: How did you get started in your career? What advice to you have to students considering a career in graphic arts?

CV: I studied Fine Arts in Barcelona, and my first job was as Graphic Designer and Technical Illustrator at a studio there. These first years we worked without computers (you know: real Rotrings, real rulers and real aerographs and tints… :-), and then it comes the “Desktop Publishing Revolution” when I had my first approach to a computer: an old Macintosh II FX + Illustrator 88. These were my first digital tools.

Since then, I have worked at several graphic design studios and advertising agencies, first in Barcelona and then in Zaragoza [Spain], my town, working as a graphic designer, illustrator and art director. At first my tools were only Illustrator, Photoshop and QuarkXPress/InDesign. But then I discovered the “3D” world, about 11-12 years ago, and learning by myself as an autodidact I have developed a career as “3D artist” working with different tools.

I would give only two basic advices to graphic design students: to learn continuously and to work hard. And don’t forget a basic knowledge in color theory, composition, and such things that are essential to painting and photography: these are important concepts to graphic design and 3D too. It’s not only a matter of computers and applications.

DD: What qualities do you think make a web animation effective?

CV: Well, I don’t see myself doing exactly “web animation”. My animations, Nature by Numbers and others, are available on the net, as almost all today, but I don’t make “animations-for-web” strictly speaking. Anyway my opinion is: try to do something different. Don’t obsess on doing “great-incredible-spectacular” works, full of FX and such. People see incredible things on theaters and video-game trailers today, with gorgeous FX. It’s better to concentrate on doing “smaller and personal” things in order to capture the viewer’s attention. Well, that is what I try to do myself. Not sure if I get it.

DD: Your studio is a one-person shop. What are the benefits of working alone?

CV: Simply put: I do exactly what I want. Or rather, most of the time, I do what I can :-) Of course this could limit in order to the kind of project you can afford: not super-big projects, since timeframes tend to be small on professional commitments and teams with 4 or 6 people, obviously, could finish much sooner than me.

However, on the other hand, I don’t need to “waste” my time trying to convince to any boss or partner about if this design/solution is better than other: I deal only with my client. Usually I have almost everything in my head, and from there it flows quickly to my hands and the computer tools, without intermediaries that I have to convince, apart from clients.

DD: What do you want people to take away from “Nature by Numbers”?

CV: I have no great objectives about what people should think or perceive watching my work. My main goal is to enjoy what I do, in an honest way. I would also pursue that the end result is something of beauty and harmony. And if at the end of the process people enjoy it, what else I can ask?

DD: What are you working on now?

CV: As a personal project, I’m working on a project related to maths, geometry, art and MC. Escher. Long time until it’s finished… Very different from Nature by Numbers, anyway. I cannot say more.

DD: How should people approach you with project proposals?

CV: It’s simple: drop me an email (cristobal@etereaestudios.com) explaining what you need. The more information I receive, the more accurate my estimate will be, assuming that I really can take care of it, depending on the time available and my technical/artistic skills. It’s a good idea to take a look at my website to check the type of work and style that I can develop.

The Data Drop is a blog focused on the design elements of infographics. To submit an infographic, click here. Follow the Drop on Twitter @thedatadrop.

What is Open? A simple description of APIs. | BBYOpen | 2011

Infographics don’t have to be high-tech to get the point across. In this short, home-brewed video, the Best Buy Open group explains how Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) expand opportunities for web developers.

I will be attending the Digital Humanities API workshop at the Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities (MITH) in February. Hope to see some of you there!

Rent vs. Buy | Trulia.com & Movity.com | 2011

Is it better to rent or buy a home in 2011? Trulia.com teams up with visualization startup Movity to find out. This interactive web graphic (click to use) includes several different ways to sort the data, including median home and rental prices. It’s is based on data from Trulia’s online real estate and rental listings. Trulia shares its data upfront with a prominently placed link, a best practice carried over from academia.

Movity is still in private beta—I’m trying to score an invite—but it will be a real estate visualization web site that will help people decide the best place to live based on “geodata,” social media searches, and maps. We can assume that the graphic design wizard here is Movity’s Sha Hwan (his job title: map genius). But Movity is backed and staffed by a ton of bright people, including a raft of Googlers and top entrepreneur Eric Wu. The smart money’s here; check it out early.

Trulia also deserves props here for releasing its corporate data, as well as working closely with Movity to visualize it. I hope we can look forward to more companies releasing their raw stats in the future.

Credit Check

Cracking the Credit Card Code | Jess.net | 2011
Via Mint.com

Jess.net and personal finance site Mint show you how to validate a credit card using your mind (and, if you’re anything like me, a calculator). Each number on a credit card says something about it, including what type of card it is and who issued it. The final digit on a credit card is a checksum. Checked against this equation, valid credit cards will always be divisible by 10, while fake ones may not (enlarge).

There are, in fact, two infographics here; First, Jess takes us through the information included in a credit card number. The graphic progresses from left to right along the number.The second graphic is positioned below the first and demonstrated how to perform a checksum. Jess chose a chalklike font for the headers, and the notebook-paper text boxes also add to the impression of a classroom—an appropriate venue for a math infographic. The wallet and keys at the top remind readers that this is personal finance we’re dealing with, not economics or arithmetic. The designer is careful to avoid trademark disputes by branding her imaginary credit card “Vista.”

With this graphic, Jess had to deal with a fairly challenging problem. To demonstrate that credit card checksums work, she had to invent an imaginary credit card number that checked out appropriately. However, we can assume that the card in the graphic is probably not valid, even though it “checks out.” Is this an insurmountable issue? Does it undermine the credibility of the graphic? That’s for you to decide.

Jess.net specializes in economics and finance visualizations. Like “Credit Card Code,” most of her work focuses on simplicity and boldness. She explains her designs on her blog Wallstats.com.

Monster Math

You Can Count on Monsters |  Evan Schwartz, Ph.D. | 2010
Via NPR

It’s not common for this blog to post images that don’t make intuitive sense. I’m glad to make this exception. The image above is just one of many in the new children’s book You Can Count on Monsters.  Written by math professor Evan Schwartz, Monsters uses his fascinating illustrations to share the concepts of prime numbers and factors with middle-school children. The book factors out the numbers from 1-100. Prime numbers are represented by single “monsters” that cannot be separated into parts, while composite numbers (like 14, above) are represented by groups of monsters. The concept is easy to understand when you see the whole poster (click here).

The creative illustrations will be especially helpful to children struggling with factors, but any child who is interested in math will appreciate this book of patterns.

Find it in a local library.

The State of Wikipedia | Jess3 | 2011
Via Mashable

At first, I was hesitant to include this video from Jess3, not because it’s a bad video, but because I’ve already briefly reviewed another Wikipedia infographic (Notabilia) for the “10 Extraordinary Infographics" series.  However, "The State of Wikipedia" quickly won me over.  

It’s narrated by Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s telegenic founder, but the real star here is Jess3’s animation. Cool colors (mostly blue, gray, and green) and a cardboard-cutout aesthetic make the graphic feel fresh an innovative. Note the pale, almost newsprint-gray background against which the animations are contrasted. In the hands of a less talented designer, this would make the video feel washed-out, but here it adds a quirky authenticity.

Clocking in at almost four minutes, Wales’ narration is a little lecture-y, an impression enhanced by my recent experience with silent infographics (cf. “Nature by Numbers”). The awesomeness of the graphics occasionally distracts from Wales’ story. I’d be interested to hear whether listeners stuck with the narration till the end. The lack of balance between visual and audio elements makes this graphic more fun than effective.

The Jess3 design firm specializes in data visualization. They’ve done several other popular “state of” videos. Look for more from Jess3 this year. I’ll also try to score an interview; I’ll let you know how it goes.

What is there to say about the proliferation of Wikipedia infographics? Well, part of it has to do with Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary this year. More importantly, all of Wikipedia’s content is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license. This relatively unrestricted content license means that any designer is free to explore Wikipedia’s data. The moral of the story? If you love your information, set it free.

Introducing the Data Drop

10 extraordinary infographics kick off a new design blog

Surveys. Check-ins. Statistical reports. We live in a world where more raw data is available than ever before. However, the means for consuming and understanding these data are still rare. Filling that gap is the field of infographics, which render complicated statistical data into forms that everyone can understand.

Infographics have been with us since the rise of the printing press, in the form of graphs and charts. However, the rise of Web video and interactive graphics, combined with the data explosion of the last five years has launched the Age of the Infographic. Extraordinary infographics are being produced by people all over the world, and creators range from traditional print media to independent designers to university programs and students. These projects unite art and information, rendering our data-filled world comprehensible.

What makes an infographic great? It’s not magic. It’s a combination of teamwork, creativity and ambition. Successful infographics have a lot in common; a thorough study of these works brings out some of the basic rules and concepts of infographic design. The Data Drop is here to draw out and explain those ideas.  To kick things off, we’re exploring a collection of 10 incredible infographics, most of them produced in the last year. These graphics demonstrate the potential of designed data to inform, clarify and enlighten.

The featured graphics draw from several different categories: commercial, educational, historic and personal. They demonstrate products (“Atlantis,” “Ben the Bodyguard”), explain statistical or academic data (“7 Billion,” “Notabilia”) or educate (“How Our Laws Are Made,” “Nature by Numbers”). These are examples of the kind of graphics The Data Drop is pursuing. Over the next year, we will also deconstruct some of these examples frame-by-frame, to illuminate the principles behind these design achievements. Some of those principles are ancient; along the way, The Data Drop will explore book and print culture to establish some fundamental concepts. Some of them are brand new; kinetic typography, social media, digital humanities and interdisciplinary approaches are all revolutionizing the way we find and share data.

The Data Drop is a one-person, nonprofit, largely academic operation. If you’ve seen or heard of a great infographic, you can help out by sharing it, either through Twitter or the submission page. If you have some of your own thoughts about the fundamentals of infographics, you can also submit a guest post.

I hope you enjoy—and learn from—these amazing infographics. They’re a sign of things to come.

We Feel Fine | Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar | 2011

Above is a snapshot of “We Feel Fine,” a web-based application that analyzes people’s emotions in real time. In an example that would humble Carl Sagan, each dot represents an emotion that someone out there is feeling. Click the image to launch the application.

"We Feel Fine" scours blogs for the statements "I feel" or "I am feeling" and generates a live, constantly moving webgraphic about the emotional state of the world. Click any dot, and a quote or photograph will appear. Even better, the emotions are connected with demographic data, allowing Harris & Kavmar to produce analyses of emotions according to age and sex.

It is difficult to put the experience of using “We Feel Fine” into words. As is common with these interactive graphics (c.f. “Notabilia”), the picture does not do justice to the project. You have to interact with it to understand it. I feel inspired.

Notabilia | M. Stefaner, D. Taraborelli, G.L. Ciampagli | 2011 
CC-BY-NC-SA

In this fascinating interactive web site (click to visit), researchers explore the history of article deletions on Wikipedia. Each thread in the above image represents a deleted article on Wikipedia. The threads track the history of pro- and anti-deletion arguments, with threads in the middle being more controversial. Clicking a thread brings you to the article’s discussion page, where different Wikipedia users debate whether or not to keep the article in question.

The discussion pages are very intriguing of themselves, providing a look at the inner workings of Wikipedia’s thorough, almost legalistic, deletion process.  Wikipedia’s process of decision-making through consensus was what appealed to the social scientists behind “Notabilia.” While visiting the exhibit, click through to the discussions behind the data. Wikipedia’s editors are clearly intelligent, literate and well-educated, which should reassure people who are concerned about the encyclopedia’s accuracy. This graphic is an excellent way to make an academic project accessible to a wide audience.

"Notabilia" is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

Just a Bill

How Our Laws are Made | Mike Wirth & Dr. Susanne Cooper Guasco | 2010
CC-BY

The full size of this image is 3215px × 1584px—big enough to challenge my widescreen monitor (click to enlarge). With that much space, graphic designer Mike Wirth and researcher Susanne Guasco make our complex lawmaking system almost as simple as a game of Candyland. With opportunities for lobbying and stopping points clearly marked, “How Our Laws are Made” could easily guide an entire semester of social studies or civics classes. It also demonstrates several opportunities for the public to influence the lawmaking system.

This graphic won the “How a Bill Becomes a Law” category in last year’s Design for America contest, beating out several excellent competitors. It is distributed under a Creative Commons-Attribution license.  You can buy a print for your classroom or office here.

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