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What a graphic can tell you

I love looking at things in a new way.  More to the point, I love it when I see things about the world that I thought I knew... but then realize there's more to the story. 

And for the past few years I've been doing various pieces of research into information visualization--the science and art of making complex information visually perceivable.  It's cool, it's fun, and every so often you learn something really, really interesting.

I was just sort of doodling the other day in Powerpoint.  (If you must know, I was trying to prepare a talk to give at some university, and I started wondering how many dots you could usefully squeeze onto a Powerpoint slide.) 

Now that sounds crazy: doodling in Powerpoint?  Yeah, I know.  But come to think of it, why not?  It's got a bunch of okay tools for drawing and while you probably won't make great art, it's fine for quick sketching.  You won't confuse the output with a masterwork in oil or water color, but it's really great for a quick sketch.   And it IS the tool I spend a lot of time using, so I've grown pretty accustomed to its idiosyncracies. 

So I drew a bunch of dots.  Then it hit me--if a dot stood for a day, what would my life look like as a set of dots on the screen? 

(You can click on each image to see it full-size.) 


If that's 20 years worth of days, then what would the rest of my life look like?  Could I fit a lifetime's worth of days onto a Powerpoint slide? 


And how would you think of your life in terms of segments?  I fooled around some more and came up with this as a way of thinking about the various parts of my career. 


I certainly hope that my life and career last more than 60 years!  Nevertheless, I found this an intriguing way of looking at the progress of your life.

Or, to put it more pragmatically, where's your dot?

Question for you:  What information graphic was most informative / influential / insightful for you?  Was there a great piece of infoviz that really just did it for you?

Posted by Dan Russell on May 31, 2006 | Permalink


The first graphic had the biggest impact on me.
What was the most surprising to me, was that the dots looked less than I would've imagined. You think of 20 years like a long time.
The last two look like one's lifetime calendar view. Crazy stuff! :)

Posted by: Boris Yankov | May 31, 2006 8:17:30 AM

I have to agree the first one hit home hardest for me. Being only 24, that graphic is pretty close to a representation of my life - and it seems like a lot less dots than I would imagine (especially if you knock out the dots from your life where you can't recall much of anything, like the first 3 or 4 years). Now, imagine how that graphic would compare against time worked, time slept, and how many days we can actually vividly remember some details of...

Posted by: Chris | May 31, 2006 8:30:31 AM

I have to say: none of the above. Just because, by reference of my own life, I don't think life progresses in a "dot-like" consistency. Some days or periods can seem longer or shorter - like "dashes" and "dots", if you prefer. Some feel one "colour" or another. And being a master-student in his 20s, I certainly hope no one's training ends at 20!

I guess the only impact the graphs had, was to make me realise that we all truly hold life in our own hands, and that only *we" can decide whether a dot is just a dot, or unlimited potential.

Posted by: Vincent | May 31, 2006 9:07:32 AM

I'm nearing 20 years old and I think the last graphic put things in perspective. Not as to how long I have "left".. we don't know how long that will be. Instead I can see all the time passed and think back to how I've lived those dots. Hah, I found my exact dot though.. I'm 7,169 days old. ;-)

Posted by: Devin | May 31, 2006 11:04:41 AM

I think it would be more interesting if you tied it to actual events. Graduations, jobs, study abroad, etc. All you're really showing is how many days make up 10 year segments.

And since you mentioned information visualization, doesn't Tufte warn against attributing meaning to extraneous axes? That is, you're using both height and width to represent time. People have trouble perceiving identical areas, when the dimensions are are different (i.e. long narrow boxes vs. a square).

Posted by: Pete Jelliffe | May 31, 2006 11:16:10 AM

I stumbled across a book in a "close-out" store several years ago that had a similar representational take on visualizing time.

It was called "One Million" by Hendrik Hertzberg (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0812920996/sr=8-1/qid=1149095494/ref=sr_1_1/104-7872081-9520768?%5Fencoding=UTF8).

Simply put, it's a 200 page book with 5,000 dots per page (equaling 1 million dots in total). On each page, different dots are highlighted and "called out" with a Note of Interest associated with that specific number. (for instance, 2-The Population of the Garden of Eden, 291,557-Americans killed in WWII, etc.)

The accidental discovery of this book was one of the events that triggered my interests in visual representations and ways to more clearly communicate information in other than textual/numeric forms.

I've had some ideas about adapting/adopting the concept of this book for a website, but I've never had the time/energy to follow through. Maybe this will spark some new momentum? Hmmm....

Posted by: Jon | May 31, 2006 1:06:53 PM

The sequence of graphics tells me more about the insular nature of your career and life than you probably want me to know. You've been extremely fortunate, and possibly bored from time to time.

I've had one career wiped out by Reaganomics, another by Y2K, and yet another by corporate corruption. There are stripes of re-training (unemployment) and stripes of indecision. I've had careers that matured to the "advanced" level very quickly and a couple that never left the training stage. And I couldn't afford to stop at 60.

No complaints, yet, but there is NO WAY that I'd attempt to graph using the dot technique ... instant brain freeze. A crazy quilt, maybe, would be an accurate picture.

Posted by: Margherite | May 31, 2006 1:37:07 PM

This makes me shudder a bit. My current dot just passed half way. The representation of what we like to think is limitless, represented on one finite screen is powerful.

I paused, however, on this line:

A life is ~70 years, or 160(squared) number of days.

First, my brain started trying to square 160, and couldn't; so the number 160 squared meant nothing to me. (Why not just put 25600? Or 25.6K?)

Then, I got tripped up by the order of statements on that slide.
You went:

day = dot
life = this many years or this many days
block of dots = this many days
blocks on screen = this many days or this many years
this screen is this many years

It seems to me that the second line is out of place and would be more powerful at the end, where you could sum up with this screen is a third of one's life.

Could be off base, but it got me twisted up.

Posted by: Jason | May 31, 2006 1:56:48 PM

Wow, life is short indeed.

Posted by: Hermann Klinke | May 31, 2006 2:11:57 PM

This reminds me of a friend's project. He's developed a tool for parents to track information about their newborns. It then takes this raw data and creates interesting visualizations. To me, the most interesting visualization describes the child's sleep patterns. It's fascinating to see the patterns evolve as the child ages.

You can see an example here:

And read a little bit about how it works here:

Posted by: alicia | May 31, 2006 2:46:20 PM

I interpreted the question at the end to be more generally about any graphic that really illuminated something, not just the ones in this post (which I personally find a bit too abstract). The most significant graphic I can remember in recent memory was the famous "purple United States" map put together to refute the "red state/blue state" map resulting from the 2004 Presidential election. That was a simple graphic (not simple to put together, I'm sure) that highlighted the difference between a state's vote (red or blue) at an electoral level and the actual makeup of voters within each state. It drove home the point that your neighbors don't all agree--or disagree--with you, wherever you live. Opinions in the country are not segregated by state; they are as fluid as a gradient of colors and as difficult to pin down. I knew that on an intellectual level, but that graphic really hit home in an elegant, simple way.

Posted by: Tim S. | May 31, 2006 4:58:03 PM

THANK YOU, Pete Jelliffe! It is depressing to see how short life appears to be when condensed down into dots like this.... but you are exactly correct that putting time into two axes is inappropriate since time is linear! This shows you the power of the way information is displayed. If you're not careful, you can use visualization to really skew the reality of any subject.

My grandfather always thought that those lucky enough to live 83 years and 4 months (83 1/3 years) should celebrate that date, becuase it represents our 1,000 month on this planet.

The other point I want to make regarding time and our perception of it: Time seems very slow when we are young, and the perception of time continually seems to speed up as we get older. This can be attributed to the way our brain works. To a five-year-old, one year represents fully 20% of our entire lifetime to date. But to a forty-year-old, one year is but 2.5% of our life experience to date.

What a fun topic this is! Thanks for the musings and experimentation, Dan!

Posted by: Morriss Partee | May 31, 2006 7:24:41 PM

Thanks for all the considerations... a few thoughts back to you...

Yeah, I know about Tufte's work and thoughts about viz. And while I understand about the "time is linear" line of reasoning, it just doesn't quite work out this way. Written text (such as you're reading now) is linear too--one perceives it in an unbroken sequence--but it also wraps at the right side edge. So I didn't feel bad about wrapping the dots. I tried wrapping in groups of 7 (so you could see a week), and I tried in groups of 30 (roughly a month), but both groupings just added space without adding much by way of value. I also liked the abstraction of 10 dots/days in a row. That way you can NOT see the weeks/months/years, but just these larger units that seem both huge... and as several people have pointed out... very small.

Besides, a row of 18,352 dots (my case) is a bit too long to be useful. Talk about a lot of scrolling!

So we have to group somehow in order to fit into a single graphic. The question is how. I chose to make lots of identical blocks of dots. At least those are comparable to each other.

And to Margherite's point: I wouldn't say my life has been insular and boring--quite the contrary. Instead, this view of a life is quite consciously an edited form, intended to have the effect of seeing just the quantity of days, something that's hard to do when you keep in all the richness and detailed structure of life. Oftentimes the key to a great visualization is to figure out what to leave out, as much as what to include.

And as Tim S. says, I'm really interested in other folks visualizations or graphics of great information. My other favorite is Martin Wattenberg's great BabyNameWizard. Brilliant! If you like this, check it out:


Posted by: Dan Russell | Jun 1, 2006 7:17:34 AM

The graphical representation is actually a bit "scary" to me. I can imagine printing it out and checking off the dots as days go by! {shiver}

On the other hand, as a tracker of important events in one's life, I can see it being pretty cool.

I can also easily visualize the web site that mimics your "One Million" book. You only need one screen of dots and links to the various ranges. All that would update on each screen are the tool tips over each dot and the start/end numbers of each page or row or column or however-you-want-to-do-it.

Something else, too... Would it be okay for you and Kathy to but your byline (or at least initials) at the TOPS of your entries? I think it helps me, as a reader, if I know WHO I'm reading at the start of an entry. Does that make sense?

VERY interesting post. Thanks!

Posted by: junior | Jun 1, 2006 7:44:19 AM

Quoth Dan: "doodling in Powerpoint? ...while you probably won't make great art, it's fine for quick sketching. You won't confuse the output with a masterwork in oil or water color..."

I sense a challenge coming on!

Posted by: junior | Jun 1, 2006 7:51:26 AM

I can't resist the urge to propose the title "My Life's Spots" (a la My Life's Bits, http://research.microsoft.com/barc/mediapresence/MyLifeBits.aspx).

A very interesting and provocative visualization, and the comments

I wonder if additional techniques, such as the interactive photomosaic I recently read about in BoingBoing
(http://interact10ways.com/usa/information_interactive.htm), or some kind of personal chronology variation on psychogeography (perhaps "psychochronology"?) might be adapted to helping one visualize one's life['s spots]. I also wonder if this trajectory might beneficially accommodate prediction -- or projection -- into the future ... helping people to better visualize their future spots.

Posted by: Joe McCarthy | Jun 1, 2006 8:35:55 AM

I very much enjoyed the article on dots. It pointed out to me how each moment is just a moment and that is all we have. The article was a nice meditation as a way to start the day.

Posted by: Craig Daniels | Jun 1, 2006 10:07:17 AM

Dan fantastic post !!!

Can you email please I need to discuss something with you. I could get your email through K&B but you know how often they check their mail :)

Posted by: Johannes de Jong | Jun 1, 2006 10:54:34 AM

If you want to hear something dramatic, I like this passage from "Prey" by Michael Crichton. He was talking about the dramatic acceleration of evolution once it hits a point of critical mass:

"If you compressed the history of life on earth into twenty-four hours, then multi-cellalar organisms appeared in the last twelve hours, dinosaurs in the last hour, the earliest men in the last forty seconds, and modern man less than one second ago."

Posted by: Tim Sunderland | Jun 1, 2006 5:33:35 PM

another way of thinking about time and how relative it is:

the shortest laser pulses nowadays are in the order of a femtosecond. There are more femtoseconds in a second than there are hours since the big bang!

Interesting perspective on differences of scale, isn't it?

As an aside: interesting things happen to laser light when it's pulsed in femtoseconds. It stops being monochromatic: instead it spreads out across the entire spectrum at regular intervals of VERY precise numbers of Hz.

But, I'm digressing.

Posted by: Noons | Jun 1, 2006 10:06:51 PM

It made me think of Douglas Adams' total perspective vortex: The most horrible torture device in the entire universe. It allows the victim to perceive the enormity of the entire universe and their tiny place in it, which of course drives them insane - proving once and for all that the last thing we need is a sense of perspective. You have just given me a tiny slice of that experience. Thank you so much.

Posted by: Alex Farran | Jun 2, 2006 1:26:45 AM

These are cool and they make the point so well.... Research sure backs you up on the power on our visual domains, and many times our poor brains are left to starve on that realm. I always feel bad for those whose dominent intelligence is visual and who face a barage of words only - without shape, color or textures Thanks for showing us this side of the brain's power... Imagine a world that began to capitalize on your message here...!

Brain Based Business

Posted by: Ellen Weber | Jun 2, 2006 5:34:52 AM

The vertical axis label is interesting - it is portrayed as a single progression with the value being work. Nothing wrong this, of course. What crossed my mind, though, is whether the bias of information is easier to perceive in a diagram than in text? For there are always underlying assumptions and bias in any explanation. Choosing which assumptions and which bias can be key to engaging the user. Another might have chosen the type of book they are reading....

Posted by: bren | Jun 2, 2006 11:09:59 AM

Thanks, that is an interesting way of looking at things and it certainly makes you think of how you are living your life.

I am glad we don't know exactly how many dots we have. Can you imagine living like that?

Posted by: Gomer | Jun 2, 2006 10:36:45 PM

I think the most fascinating graphicI've ever seen is this one.


So much information packed into it, yet very easy to understand

Posted by: Philip | Jun 2, 2006 11:10:52 PM

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