Data Illustrator: What I Love and Hate

Early in the semester, Professor Cairo introduced us to Data Illustrator, an open source tool that was designed to create data visualizations and infographics without programming.

My first graphic using Data Illustrator:

This was for a class exercise. I used data already provided by Data Illustrator so I could get a feel for how to use it. I imported it into Adobe Illustrator to clean it up and add copy.

My second graphic using Data Illustrator:

This is a heatmap I made to include in my final project for the Intro to Data Visualization course. I made it in DI and then exported as an SVG to modify using Adobe Illustrator. I love how this turned out.

What I Love and Hate

Love: The seeming flexibility.

Even though I don’t really feel anywhere near comfortable using DI, I can see from the examples that it is very flexible in terms of the type of visualizations that can be created. Plus, I was able to create the heat map above with Data Illustrator which I could not figure out how to do with any other tool in my student tool kit.

Hate: The hurdles of learning its flexibility

I am a beginner with visualization and Data Illustrator but as someone who is learning about user research and user experience, the UX could be greatly improved for novice users. I have no idea how experts in data viz feel about Data Illustrator but from a novice point-of-view the usability — efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction — is low.

Love: Downloading the files as SVG

The ability to download SVG files and modify them in Illustrator is very cool. The files are relatively clean (compared to Flourish) and works great.

Hate: Saving projects

Ok, it would be nice if I could save the project name within Data Illustrator rather than having to rename an Untitled DI file after I it downloads to my desktop. This is just so counter-intuitive. Still, at least when you re-open a saved DI file, the web-based tool actually recognizes it and it works so you can continue to modify as desired.

I wish and hope…

A usability test will be done if not already with Data Illustrator to improve it. It think it has a lot of promise but from a usability standpoint, it really needs refinement. Some user testing and UI improvements and improvements to the Help and Documentation especially for novice uses would help make Data Illustrator really shine.

Maps, Maps, Maps …

So … where do I start? I love maps! As strange as this may sound, I had forgotten how much I love them. It took an Intro to Data Visualization course to remind me or renew that spark and I’m so glad.

Even with my love for maps, I never really studied them; looked closely or heck, even questioned them. For me, it was about where I had traveled, where I wanted to go, how I would get from point A to point B. I used to be the navigator for my dad when our family would take road trips. I loved having that responsibility; knowing where we are, how we will reach our destination … Big girl stuff.

But I guess with GPS, maps aren’t so much a presence in our daily lives and perhaps that is how I forgot my love of maps?

Learning and looking at maps through a different lens

These are just a few of the maps I’ve been drawn to of late. The first of measles in the United States in 2019. It’s nothing ground-breaking but it sure is astonishing as it is attractive which is an odd thing to say about a map that presents disease.

But, I think that is what is most interesting about being human. What catches our eye can be a twist on the expected? I’m not sure if I’m explaining that well but that’s how it feels for now.


The colors are striking. The reds are a direct link to measles (I have no idea if that was intentional but that’s what it seems to be) and set off against the neutral grays and creams, they pop out.

Having lived in the Pacific Northwest, I’m a bit shocked that there are so many cases in Southern Washington and Portland, Oregon. But then again, maybe not. I’m not sure what the connection is but it would be interesting to investigate more.

Source: The Economist

This map above scares me but also comforts me in that currently I live in Syracuse, New York (Miami is temporary as far as I know). I worry about my parents who live in the South and this just brings to mind a ton of questions. What are states doing to prepare for this warmth? It is going to have such an impact on daily life. Bandaids here and there are not going to help though it may make people feel better … I’m no expert on what impacts are but the first thing that comes to mind from just reading the news is water and disease. Everything else from there is like a row of dominoes.

Oh but what I also love about the map above is the pairing with the bar graph of income! If I’m reading this correctly, the intensity of the orange bars are connected to the colors of the map, too. Scary and depressing. Will those with less survive? What will we do as a country to help people who don’t have the resources to escape climate change?

Source: Morphocode

This last map … It’s a map of that shows the age of buildings in Lower Manhattan. The project is called Urban Layers. I looked up one building where my husband and I stay when we visit the City and I definitely want to explore this more because I wonder how the building of buildings is connected in terms of where they are located in Manhattan.

One thing I sort of wished for or thought of was when hovering over the different colors or buildings, it would be cool to read more about them, especially the historic buildings. I guess I’m wishing for just a bit more depth! Check it out.

Plans to learn more about Maps

My summer plans include a lot of learning; mainly code such as R and Javascript. Perhaps I can dabble in some mapping tools as well to get my feet wet. I know that for my final year of graduate school a GIS class is planned but in the meantime, I want to study them more. Maybe there’s a way to practice building maps using R? Or perhaps D3.js?

Two Data Visualizations about Women

So I can’t remember how I arrived at Scientific American and these two data visualizations but upon first impression, I really like them.


  • Both are about topics and issues about and related to women. I am a woman, therefore I am partial to stories about anything that could affect me or enlighten me about what it is to be a woman.
  • At first glance, they are beautiful. Not in that omg, wow, cool sense but in that I’m looking out on a lake and watching the sunrise; those moments before the sunrises. Slow, quietly beautiful. I think what I love most is the contrast between the organic, fluid shapes and the harder edges; the natural and scientific for lack of better terms. Hmm
  • In diving in more, the content is rich, helpful and fascinating. I took a physiology and anatomy class so more medical jargon of The Menstrual Cycle is familiar to me. The Maternal Mortality visualization was just downright shocking. This was a visualization from 2009 and maternal mortality has been in the news quite a bit lately but this visualization, I think, hits hard about the U.S. Seriously, flat-out sad.

I need to subscribe to Scientific American. If looking at and studying more visualizations is key to learning to be a better data visualization designer, then I think this magazine would be helpful. I’m also thinking that I want to collect visualizations about women.

Final Project: The Changing Landscape of HIV

I started work on my final project for Professor Cairo’s Intro to Visualization course. My topic: HIV. This was based on a story I read in The New York Times about how HIV has become most prevalent in the South, in rural areas, and among gay, male, people of color. I wanted to explore how HIV has shifted over the years.

Above are my most recent drafts and I think I finally have a direction I feel confident about. It’s quite astonishing the number of details and polish required before a visualization feels complete especially in print.

What I’m working on to refine:

  • Color choices. I think one of the greatest challenges is creating a color palette that is attractive and is colorblind safe. This is harder than it may seem.
  • Copy. Writing never comes easy to me, so this is going to take more time than anything else.
  • Typography. This is a particular favorite of mine. I love type and tweaking its use… well, I might need to cut myself off. I use Suitcase to manage my type library so I’ve created a folder just for typefaces that work well for data visualizations.

Professor Cairo mentioned how 80 percent of visualization is understanding the data. This project is proof that statement is true.

Data from the CDC’s Annual HIV Surveillance PDFs.

The Excel workbook above is just one of many I created and combed through to understand what the numbers show. In my case, I needed to visualize it because with a table this large it is difficult to see or compare much of anything.

My initial plan was to show the shift of HIV in the U.S. over 20 years. But after downloading 20 years of PDFs and using Tabula to extract the data, I discovered that in 2007, a change in how the data was reported presented me with anomalies and a decision; actually a question. What do I do? In sketching the numbers with Flourish, there was clearly a dip that without a note people could interpret incorrectly. In fact, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

There were two options, according to Professor Cairo:

  • Annotate 2007 with a note about the change in reported data
  • Visualize only last decade.

I chose the latter because after reading through the technical notes, 2008 was when all states had enough data and it could be standardized. What is shocking to me is that data about HIV wasn’t standardized until 2008!

Above is a sketch of visualizing HIV diagnosis in nearly every state. Its more than our project brief required because there isn’t room for a grid of mini line charts but once I started to see how each state compared to each other and the national rate between 2008 and 2017, I couldn’t stop. The group of this mini line charts is visually interesting. I plan to organize each one regionally and in the future, I want to explore further iterations.

The Functional Art: Interview with Stefanie Posavec

Of all the interviews in The Functional Art, the interview with Stefanie Posavec is my favorite.

Alberto Cairo: How did you do the graphics? Did you do use any scripts to count the words, organize them, sort them according to themes, etc.?

Stefanie Posavec: Believe it or not, I didn’t. I did it all by hand.

The Functional Art, p. 343


Literary Organism, by Stefanie Posavec. Source:

I am aware that I need to automate, but sometimes I feel that it’s important to spend that kind of time gathering your information by hand. It feels a little more natural. Also, it creates bonds with what you are working on: I had to read On the Road over and over again, so the outcome was as much a representation of the text as it is a representation of the novel in my head, of my experience of exploring it.

Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 343

Stefanie’s reply resonates with me so much yet, I have to give this more thought as I’m sleep deprived and my head is a bit scrambled from switching mind gears for each project, but here’s the immediate thought: As a graduate student in an interactive media program, naturally, there is great focus on code and digital. While people, through emphasis on user experience and user research, are at the center of what students create, I’ve often wondered if students, my classmates, feel a connection to the experiences they are creating.

Does that sound weird? I can hear the other side of myself asking, “Why do we need to connect with what we are creating?”

Seriously though, do screens and the code that have been designed to help us making things more efficiently, disconnect us from the experience, the tactile and physical nature of human movement, of making? By removing the slowness of making by hand and touching materials disconnect us as makers, as designers?

Highlighted pages of Stefanie Posavec’s copy of On the Road. Source: ImageKind

When is the last time you really looked at a book and didn’t take it for granted?

I’ve designed photo books where I’ve worked with photographers editing with printed thumbnails and taking those sequences to InDesign and printing tons of dummies, mockups to get a feel for the experience. Then if I could be so lucky, see the book printed.

But I gotta say, nothing compares to literally making a book. I personally am not very good at it as I’m a beginner but when you make a book by hand, you start to truly understand and appreciate every page, measurement, type placement, paper (oh the paper!), fold, stitch and more. It feels more personal.

What is our relationship with books? What is your relationship with books? What is a book?

It’s clear I love paper books. I suppose it isn’t “right” to love paper books in this age of climate change, waste, trash and environmental impact but I can’t help it. It’s an emotional relationship. I love the simplicity of interactions: using your hands and a pen to highlight words, jot down notes in the margins, fold the corners to book mark a page … The fact that you can bring it anywhere (well, depending on size and weight), you don’t need electricity though you may need a light when it is dark.

Above all, I understand more when I read from printed words. I’m not sure what it is but if I read, highlight, and write in a book, I retain the information more. It just isn’t the same with the Kindle, PDFs, or web-based books. If paper books ever disappear, I’m going to be in trouble.

Stefanie’s visualization, Writing Without Words: Sentence Drawings of every sentence from On the Road is the transformation of the experience of the book. It is beautiful, poetic, musical. It looks like an expression of our natural world. Looking at it, I’m reminded of mold, of crystallization, of the beauty of science and biology.

It’s always about awe and wonder for me. That’s why I have decided to call myself a data illustrator, rather than a data visualizer. The reason is that I really like the idea of using data to communicate more subjective concepts about the topics I cover. Everything is accurate in my graphics, but they are not necessarily designed just for efficiency, they are not always what you would call information design.

Stefanie Posavec, The Functional Art, p. 348

Sometime I think in the age of digital we have forgotten about awe and wonder; to look at the world as new beings, like children.

Yet, the side of me that loves technology has experienced awe and wonder in multi-layered experiences, especially in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) … Magic Leap being one of my favorites along with Tilt Brush on the Oculus.

Perhaps it isn’t a choice…it isn’t binary but a place where I want to sit; where I want to practice. Hmm…

Stefanie’s interview reminds me that I don’t ever want to be removed from what I create or heaven forbid, dispassionate. Emotions are healthy as much as they can be annoying. They are as beautiful as they are difficult to experience through others and within ourselves.