Redefining Travel Guides with Data Visualization

Jane Zhang
Sep 13, 2019 · 12 min read

For the guide mentioned in this article, you can download the guide here.

I was planning a trip a couple months ago and struggled to plan it by myself. Trying to work within a budget, I did a lot of research on things to do, places to stay, and ways to get around. I had to consider many aspects planning this trip and it was very stressful:

- Where to stay
- Options for getting around (bus schedules, renting a car)
- Top places I should check out
- Proximity of destinations
- Checking for the best flight deals
- Where to eat
- Weather of the destination
- How much money I should budget
- How long I should go for
- Make sure things at home were looked after
- Make sure my visa was sorted

Why is this so hard? There are so many resources available online yet I still needed to do so much research. A study done in 2012 reported that pre-trip planning produced more stress than actually going on the trip. This is not surprising because planning a trip requires us to piece together a lot of information from many places. The key variables I was working around was time, money, and degree of customization. If I wanted lots of choice in what I was going to do, I needed to spend a lot of time to do research. However, if I just wanted to go somewhere and have all my needs taken care of, I could spend a little more money and buy a travel package. But in this process, I lose the freedom to choose what to do. I summarize this below:

A quick search on Toronto itineraries on Google bring up various travel sites and blogs that highlight key places to visit in the city.

Left: Lonely Planet. Right: Taylorstracks

Looking at the guides I found online, they are text-heavy. As a designer, I can’t help but see opportunities in how these guides could have better ways to show the information. Although there is a lot of information listed, there is still a lot of context missing.

When I was planning my own travel, I really wanted to have a travel guide that was thoroughly made with details like budget, context of destinations, transportation, and some details/history on each destination. I decided to take this on as a challenge and create this. My overall goal is to target people who wants a mix of both customization and structure. I want to reduce the time for research and help them make choices on what to do. This article will go over my process of making a guide for Toronto, a city I am very familiar with.

Tossing Ideas Around

I started off with the general idea of a travel guide with a specific itinerary for people to follow. I found a guide by Lonely Planet and started there. I thought I could create a generic guide that could cater to everyone. It’s the kind that you follow if you want to visit the iconic sites of the city. CN Tower is a prime example, it’s a place you won’t find anywhere else in the world. If you can only do one thing in Toronto when visiting for the first time, then CN Tower is your best bet.

Now that I had a direction, I needed to consider the form. I could make this a print brochure, but I don’t think it’s realistic to expect people to bring more things with them. One thing I was certain about was that people will always take their phones with them on their travels. So do I make an app? Well, that is beyond my capabilities as I can’t build apps and I did not have the budget to hire people for this. The next thing I could make was a PDF for mobile. This sounded feasible since the file sizes are small and people are familiar with PDF. In addition, I could add links in a PDF so people can be directed to relevant sites. With a general direction in place, I set out to do some research.

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants

Design research is a very crucial step, it involves understanding what has already been done and learning why it works. I pulled out some guides I collected in the past and borrowed some from the library. I also had a field day at Union Station in Toronto.

Toronto Nuit Blanche 2018: the roads in the maps were muted and as a result served a secondary function to finding key points of interest. The main roads were wider than the smaller roads. The road names show hierarchy by having main roads in bold.
Toronto Map: The way this scale was made is easy to relate to. The scale not only shows distance, it also shows time.
Toronto Map: these were super interesting. It shows information beyond the edge.
Toronto Map: highlighting downtown area.
The National Gallery in London UK Plan: the way the buildings are highlighted to show where each floor sits is very easy to read. Great way to provide context.
Lonely Planet The Netherlands 2019: looking for content inspiration. Highlighting peak season is very useful.
Lonely Planet The Netherlands 2019: breaking down the costs by budget, midrange, and top end is a good way to help people plan their finances.
Union Station in Toronto: heading towards Vaughan terminal stop.
Union Station in Toronto: heading towards Finch terminal stop.

These two maps above were taken at Union Station. They show the same line but the way it’s presented changes depending if you are heading to the terminal stop Vaughan or Finch. The key learning here is to be specific and don’t slack off. They could’ve easily used the same map for for people heading in both directions, but that would’ve been lazy work. If you are heading to a specific direction, you would want to see a map catered to your needs.

Keep in mind that design research doesn’t just happen at the beginning. It continues throughout the design process. As I was developing the work, I kept referring back to my resources. After an initial round of assessing existing work, it was time to make things.

Professsor YouTube to the Rescue!

I learned how to build maps for this project. I never made maps at the street-level before, so this was my excuse to start learning. I was never formally taught how to use Illustrator or InDesign. I picked these skills up when I was studying design strategy and learned watching my classmates use them. Over time, I started doing personal projects to further develop my skills.

When I first made the map, I started off by plotting points of interest on Google Maps. I used this as my base.

I put this into Illustrator and started outlining all the streets. It looked like crap. All the widths were inconsistent. I used the pen tool to manually draw each street. This was very ugly to look at but I didn’t know what to do about it. I felt stuck.

I took a break and came back to this map the next day. I looked up a tutorial and found one when I searched “how to make map illustrator”. This was the first tutorial that popped up and I watched it. And this is when I learned how to apply the ‘offset path’ function. I’ve known about this function before and have seen it used, but didn’t realize its potential. So, I redrew the entire map with offset path and made something more bearable. The widths of the streets are now consistent.

This looks a lot better now.

Taking inspiration from Nuit Blanche maps, I made the roads grey and tried to create some form of hierarchy where the main roads were more prominent than the smaller ones. I removed the some smaller roads to simplify the look.

This is one of the final drafts of the map. The labels were pushed to the edge so it does not become distracting. The scale took inspiration from the Toronto Map where I measure it in time. In total, it took about 8 hours to learn how to put this one map together over the course of a few weeks. I can now make one like this in less than an hour.

An itinerary with data visualization

In general, I created the guide to accommodate someone visiting Toronto for 2 days, which would be ideal for a weekend getaway. The main value of this guide is that it provides structure and context. It provides structure by having an itinerary planned out. It provides context with maps, overview of general expenses, and what to expect in terms of weather. The goal is to reduce, not eliminate, the time spent on research when planning a trip to Toronto. Research is still required for visitors to tailor the itinerary to their needs. This guide is not as comprehensive as what Lonely Planet guide book offers. It only covers information for when one arrives in Toronto, and does not go over details like visa, how to get to Toronto, and flight costs.

You can download the guide here.

In order to be inclusive, I created pages showing where people with specific diets could eat nearby. Unfortunately, kosher was a struggle and I couldn’t find places near the destinations in downtown Toronto.

Integrating Pinterest

Travel blogs are highly popular because they help people imagine themselves there. The travel guides that do well are ones with great images. A good image isn’t something we can look at and enjoy, it is something that can move us. As an analogy, here’s what David Ogilvy once noted about his thoughts on advertising:

“I do not regard advertising as entertainment or art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’”

Good copy can evoke certain emotions from people. Images are no different; they can entice us to move beyond our routine life and towards something unfamiliar.

The guide I created doesn’t show images of the various places I talk about. In response to thist, I created a Pinterest board to show the various shops, food, and scenes of Toronto. My board has 9 sections, each corresponding to its destination. When you go into each section, you can imagine what your visit might be like. What are the streets like? What are the shops interiors like? What are the colours like? What about the architecture? The question that guided Pinterest board was: “how do I tell the story of each destination’s character?”.

What drove me to do this

It might seem odd that I am doing this project at my own cost. No one is paying me to do this. But that wasn’t my goal in the first place. This project was very unique. It allowed me to combine all the skills I have accumulated over the past five years: business strategy, data visualization, and social media strategy.

Business strategy: I come from a background in design strategy, which means I was trained to see challenges people face in life and try to create solutions. I saw a gap in the travel market and turned that into an opportunity.

The initial strategy is to make a prototype guide that is generic and can be applied to everyone. This means I cut wide, but not deep in the market. However, sometime in the future, I would like to revisit this project and flip the tactic. I want to try and get very, very specific. What if I could interest a foodie who wanted to curated set of places to get bubble tea? Or maybe create a guide for a photographer on the best spots for street photography? I think solutions work better when they are more specific because they tend to resonate better. When something very specific is created and the user feels like it matches their needs, it feels as if they are being understood. And to be honest, maybe getting too specific might not work, but that’s something for me to test out as a future project.

Data visualization: In the dataviz field, I don’t hear enough about applications to daily life at a personal level. They are being explored, but not nearly enough. Here’s an example by Susie Lu, she created a way to update the receipt with dataviz:

On the note of creating these kinds of work, it’s a type of skill that isn’t in demand, especially in Toronto. I got lucky that I landed a job with Kantar two years ago and I got to work as a Data Designer. I built PowerPoint decks to tell stories with the data we collected. If I wanted to move beyond this and create work like Accurat Studio, then tough luck. Why isn’t this type of work in demand? My guess is because people don’t know its application. If I told someone who wasn’t in this field about my work, would they know what to do with me? Probably not. So what does this mean? It means I need to show its value. And don’t get me wrong, I am not approaching this from a perspective of ‘hey, here’s a dataviz product we could make, let’s try and find the problem this fits’. No, we start from the problem and then develop a solution from there. Naturally, that’s what happened with this project. I encountered many problems planning my travels, and I saw a way to fix that with dataviz.

At the end of the day, I just want to show the value of dataviz. I want to show how it can improve our lives, even if a little.

Social media strategy: I am freelancing in social media now and there are endless things to learn. I am familiar with Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. As I was developing this project, I realized that my guide had no room for pictures of the places I mention. After some thought, I remembered that I could use something like Pinterest. And I was just in luck, because I had a weak understanding of how Pinterest worked, I thought this was a good chance for me to learn. Also, Pinterest is very, very popular for travel inspo, so this was a match made in heaven.

The strategy here is to show specific images of each destination. I can drive traffic to Pinterest from my guide with a link. At the same time, I could drive traffic back to me with a link on the Pinterest board to my guide. The idea here is to go where my users spend their time. For people who plan their travels, they are likely to be on Pinterest. Follow where the attention is and it won’t be hard to engage them.

The potential to impact our daily lives

Through the guide I made, I wanted to achieve the experience of planning travel plans from this:

to this:

This is a lot more balanced in effort and desired outcome.

Dataviz has a lot of potential beyond numbers and statistics. There is a deeper human connection we can create with information. All the maps and charts I made were meant to help me paint a picture of my city; they were meant to help you see yourself being in Toronto. At the very least, I hope I made traveling to Toronto a bit more painless and less stressful.

In case you missed it, here’s the guide you can download.


I am a Data Visualization Designer based in Toronto, Canada. I studied sciences and design strategy. After graduation, I worked at a startup during the day and began exploring my interest in data visualization in the evenings. I later joined Kantar as a Data Design Specialist. Currently, I work as a freelancer in both design and social media strategy.

To see other types of dataviz pieces I have made, check it out on my website at www.janezhang.ca.

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Jane Zhang

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Data Visualization Designer. I provide a new perspective on how to see and understand the world.

The Startup

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