MD2 – Week 3

Big Data

Before there was language, there were images. People communicated with one another through drawings to tell stories and to gain information. The likes of which we can still see today through Egyptian history or by visiting the cave paintings at Lascaux, France.

Cave Paintings

As a race, we have progressed significantly in our abilities to communicate with one another and our languages develop as our societies and cultures evolve.

However, as beautiful and extraordinarily varied as multiple languages across the world are, how often do we still reach for a pen and paper to illustrate what we are trying to communicate or to help deliver our message clearly?

Before Google Maps or GPS, I was forever drawing directions on pieces of paper to help friends and family find their way out of the village or to the nearest petrol station.

I spent many times asking people for directions too – only to realise that afterwards I hadn’t taken in any of the information I was given – leaving me just as confused as when I started!

Having something explained in a simple illustration can make everything a lot clearer and easier to follow.

If I asked a non- designer the difference between a serif and sans serif typeface, they may not automictically know, despite coming across both styles of type multiple times during the day.

If I drew a sans serif ‘S’ on a piece of paper and then very quickly added the serifs over the top with a pen, my non-designer friend would automatically see what I was talking about and therefore understand the difference.

Serif & Sans serif

David McCandless (author of Information is Beautiful) discusses in his Ted Talk – The Beauty of Data Visualisation, about a Danish physicist, Tor Nørretranders, who created an information graphic called ‘Bandwidth of our Senses’. The graphic compares the amount of information that our senses recognise, revealing the power of sight over and beyond our other senses.

Bandwidth of our Senses

We learn visually, which is why as children we are given books that are illustrated and have no words in them. Once we visualise the differences between things, we can then associate sounds, finally adding letters and language to them.

Children's Books

McCandless also says in his Ted talk, ‘it feels like we have a lot of information problems in our society at the moment. From overload and saturation to the breakdown of trust and reliability, runaway scepticism, lack of transparency or even just interest.’

I have felt this more than ever at the moment listening to all the data and statistics given at the Downing Street press briefings over the last year on Covid19. The scientists are dealing with enormous amounts of data from various sources, which they are then trying to explain to a very concerned and worried general public. What better way to communicate this data than to visualise it so that we are not just being told what is happening, but that we can see and work out for ourselves what is actually going on.

Covid Statistics

Big data converted into charts, graphs and images to communicate a message more simply and more clearly.

As Lindon Leader (FedEx Logo Designer) says, ‘I strive for two things in design: simplicity and clarity. Great design is born of these two things.’

FedEx Logo


Workshop Challenge

This week’s challenge is to choose one of five examples of information design, analyse its effectiveness, write a 500-word synopsis and create a piece of editorial design to portray the synopsis.

I decided to choose Florence Nightingale’s ‘Rose Diagram’ as my example because I find ‘polar area diagrams’ interesting but don’t know much about them or how they first came about.

I have always been inquisitive about the set design of movies and recall in the film Star Wars a very similar design being used in the Death Star by R2D2.


I had no idea that this type of diagram dated back as far as the 18th Century and so I wanted to find out more about the history of the design.

‘Polar Area Diagrams’ are very popular in information design today and are great examples of showing information quickly, simply and clearly. To think they were used in the 18th century and by a woman in that time, is very exciting!


The Rose Diagram – Florence Nightingale (1855)

The Rose Diagram Sketches

When I think of Florence Nightingale, I think of ‘The Lady of the Lamp’ and the founder of modern nursing. But what I didn’t realise was that when her father gave her an education, she showed a talent for maths and went on to become a statistician as well.

In 1854 Florence Nightingale, along with 38 volunteer nurses, arrived in Turkey to look after and nurse soldiers that had been wounded in the Crimean War. During her time there, she recorded the data of all the soldier’s wounds and diseases, along with the number of deaths that occurred during that period. Through the data, she realised that more soldiers were dying of disease within the hospital (Cholera, Typhoid, Typus and Dysentery), than of the wounds they had received on the battlefield. Once Nightingale had gathered all this data, she designed the ‘Rose Diagram’ to show that with improvements to hospital care, sanitation, ventilation and drainage, deaths could be dramatically reduced.

Simply put, the diagram was a visual representation of all the data that Nightingale had collected which showed the difference in mortality once improvements within the hospital had been made. It was used to get Members of Parliament and civil servants to visualise what had happened during the war, some of whom may not have fully understood complex statistical reports and may not have even been able to read at that time.

I was drawn to the ‘Rose Diagram’ as my chosen piece of information design because I felt it was very simple, easy to understand and had a modern feel about it, despite looking old fashioned through use of colour and typefaces. I was surprised to learn that this diagram dated as far back as the 18th Century as I had felt certain the design had been developed through the recent popularity of information design/graphics.

The ‘Rose Diagram’, which Nightingale termed as a ‘polar area diagram’ is similar to a pie chart but where the ‘wedges’ of a pie chart are different in size and the radius is the same, the ‘wedges’ of the ‘Rose Diagram’ are all the same size, and the radius is different.

Each wedge represents a month of the year with the first wedge being April 1854 – the start of the Crimean war (on the first diagram). Each wedge is also set out like an hour on a clock, with April starting at 9 o’clock and then finishing at 8 o’clock with March the following year.

With both diagrams being circular in shape and the months displayed in the same order, it is easy to make year on year comparisons quickly.

The colours red, blue and black stand out from one another and represent death by disease, battle wounds and death by other causes.

These elements combined, give the overall diagram a modern look. Nightingale was not a designer but the simple design components within the diagram, allow the data to be clear and better understood.

As non-designers, I asked my husband and 11-year-old daughter what their initial thoughts of the diagram were. My husband understood what it represented but thought that it was a little bit confusing and that the data could be better represented i.e., a line graph. My 11-year-old got it straight away, knew what the colours represented and understood the reason for the 2 diagrams!

If my 11-year-old could understand what was going on with this simple design, then the diagram has done its job. Yes, you may want to study the information further and delve deeper into what it all means, but if you are trying to explain data its simplest form then this example and data visualisation as a whole, can be used to simplify complex data and be better understood by people of any age! Therefore, helping to get a message across to a wider audience.