Data Design: Inspiration vs Information

Jeffrey Loucks
Initial State
Published in
4 min readOct 7, 2019


Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

There are so many articles, books, and other resources online that will tell you the hard and fast rules of how to design a great dashboard or data visualization. Many of them will tell you exactly what to do, and what not to do. This is great until you get to the end of your read and realize this was only one person’s opinion. Often a well-educated and researched opinion, but an opinion none-the-less.

So, if all the rules are made up, how do you create an unmistakably great data visualization?

It depends.

That’s why you have to do research, and find other visualizations that inspire you. Emulate the things you love, and avoid the things you don’t. Compare your favorites with each other to find your perfect approach. This is the exact reason there are so many design inspiration websites online for presentations, logos, you name it.

In this series of articles, I’m going to be highlighting and comparing data visualizations that I like while explaining what has made them stand out to me. You might not agree with my opinions and what I like. That’s ok. My goal is to share with you visualizations and dashboards that have moved me in hopes that you will also be inspired. Then you can go off and create a new data visualization that inspires me. Really, it’s selfish.

So let’s get started:

I often peruse the Data is Beautiful subreddit. It’s a popular forum (almost 14 million subscribers) filled with a wide array of data visualizations about everything under the sun.

That’s where I found this quick video visualizing the world’s population density from 10,000 B.C. to 2016 AD posted by u/neilrkaye.

What do I like about this visualization?

It’s powerful and easy to understand. You can see the world’s population and population density grow by watching the earth light up. The world map slowly shifts from darkness to a pop of red in 200 A.D. with no sign of slowing. Different areas of the map shift from bright red back into darkness (i.e. Mexico from 1500 and 1600), signaling that population dropped in that area. We’re left guessing the historical significance, but also get to witness the power of human resilience as the map turns a more obvious and brighter red.

What purpose does this visualization serve?

It’s eye candy. It’s inspiring. It looks interesting, but it doesn’t give us any context into why populations in certain areas are going up and down. It just simply shows that they are. This is really cool on its own, but generally not very useful if you’re looking to understand more than just the simple fact that earth’s population has skyrocketed in the past few thousand years. This is what the data artist intended as written in the author citations, “This purposely does not have a legend as I didn’t think it would help in an animation and would distract from the animation.”

u/neilrkaye was focused on a visually appealing animation rather than an informational one. Striking a balance between beauty and information is a hard-earned skill. Data artists have to decide what they want the person viewing their visualization to take away, and make sacrifices on information and design accordingly. This artist decided to take a design first approach.

With full credit due to the inspiration from this video, I wanted more context. I wasn’t the only one.

Reddit user zomunieo commented, “I think it would be helpful for it to slow down and highlight some key events: fall of Rome, Black Death, Genghis Khan, Thirty Years War, germ theory, the World Wars, dwarf rice.” To which many agreed, and another user (u/hamderab) responded, “like this one?” and mic dropped this amazing YouTube video from the American Museum of Natural History:

It has a lot more context. Granted, it’s a full 6 minutes longer than u/neilrkaye’s visualization. This video includes a timeline, some music to set the mood, and educates you along the way with text and icons signifying important events.

It’s a more complete visualization.

However, it serves a different purpose.

If I wanted to quickly show how fast the earth’s population has grown in the past few thousand years using one data visualization alone then I’d without a doubt use u/neilrkaye’s. It’s inspirational. However, if I wanted to show any solid historical context around that data, and glean anything from it other than population has mostly gone up over 10,000 years then I’d have to go with the American Museum of Natural History’s video.

So, what’s the point in showing you these two visualizations side to side?

Assuming you already have the dataset you want to visualize handy, data artists and dashboard designers alike have to know what and where to sacrifice. When I’m designing dashboards on Initial State I always ask myself these core questions:

  1. What am I trying to communicate with this visualization?
  2. What information needs to be highlighted?
  3. What information needs to be left out?

Before you start working on your infographics, IoT dashboards or other data visualizations start by asking yourself what you want the viewer to gain.

Do you want your viewer to be more inspired or more informed? I believe great visualizations find a powerful middle ground.

Once you make a choice as to how you want to display your data, you can compare your thoughts to the differences between the two visualizations above and ask yourself: Is this inspiring, informative, or both?