Key Takeaways from the Data Visualization Society’s Outlier 2021 Conference

The Data Visualization Society’s (DVS) first conference Outlier 2021 took place on 4th, 5th, and 7th February 2021. It was organized as an online conference, joined by about 1000 participants from their computer screens all over the world. 41 main talks, about 20min each, were presented, as well as dozens of smaller sessions.

Talks were distributed within a large time window, suitable (or not) for people in different time zones. I was only able to participate in full on sunday the 7th. But due to the presentations being prerecorded, and made available as videos immediately after each talk, I was able to see every talk.

To profit the most from this event, and process it in a structured way for myself, I shortly summarized the key takeaways from the talks. These summaries are listed here. The talks I found most interesting are summarized in more detail than the others. I’ll add further summaries as I process further talks. I’ll directly link to the corresponding videos once they are made available on youtube.

To process the content in retrospect, it also made sense for me to regroup the talks into categories. Categories that emmerged are: general methodology, tools, history, data art and experimental case studies, and case studies. My interest mainly lay in the methodological talks, followed by presentations of tools. The talks on data visualization history and data art provided some lighter content in between. The enormous breadth of case studies greatly contributed to the diverse and international atmosphere of this event. The talks that I most recommend watching in full are marked with an asterisk* below.

Data Visualization General Methodology

How to get your organization to value data visualization – and you! (Steve Wexler)*

Steve Wexler demonstrated how to convince people of the power of data visualization in company environments were people are still working with raw numbers in spreadsheets. By showing examples and asking questions people can experience for themselves that data visualizations allow to find answers much faster than tables. Dashboards can be made more attractive for people if they can see their own relative position in the data. Needless discussions about chart types and color choices can be avoided by having experiments at hand demonstrating your point, such as estimating the relative sizes of bubbles/circles versus bars.

Soft Landing, Firm Impact: Practical Tips On How to Give and Receive Meaningful Data Visualization Feedback (Candra McRae)*

Candra McRae gave practical tips on how to give and receive feedback. When giving feedback one should be self-aware of one’s tone, body language, and biases. Personal opions should be voiced in the form of „I“ and „me“. It is better to give feedback in a one-on-one setting than in a group. One should first seek to understand why things were done in a certain way. The given feedback should be clear and honest but also kind. Dataviz experts‘ (Tufte, Few) stances should not be used in a discussion. When receiving feedback one shouldn’t shut down and be argumentative. One should ask engaging open questions. It is also important to act upon the given feedback.

Side Projects (Jan Willem Tulp)*

Jan Willem Tulp elaborated what makes good side projects in data visualization. Such projects serve to learn something and to show something. For data visualization designers starting out, such projects usually serve to fill the portfolio. But they also make sense for seasoned professionals, because they can lead to paid projects. Side projects provide the opportunity to fully do you own thing, with your ideas, creativity, and skills. It is recommended to keep a notebook/spreadsheet of ideas and interesting datasets. Good side projects are relevant and original. Relevance can be achieved by using a well-known dataset, treating a current event, and by allowing people to find themselves in the data. Originality can be achieved by collecting one’s own data, redesigning an existing visualization, trying a new visualization concept, visualizing uncommon questions, and by creating engaging design people spend more time with. Mr. Tulp then discussed how his own and other people’s side projects meet the criteria of relevance and originality.

My Statistic Enemy, or Why Difficulties Make Better Data Visualization (Julie Brunet)*

Julie Brunet explained how she cooperates with people with different skillsets. The basic idea is to manage that which you don’t know. People in the data visualization community have very different backgrounds. There is a temptation to try to learn to do everything by oneself. But a better approach is to cooperate with people that have the skills that one lacks for a project. People can thus alternately take the lead for different parts of a project.

Personal comment: The slides of this presentation were probably the most beautiful of the conference.

Data Viz, the UnEmpathetic Art (Mushon Zer-Aviv)*

Mushon Zer-Aviv discussed how empathy can be achieved in data visualizations. Humans easily empathize with individuals but not with masses. Research has shown that people are willing to donate more than double the amount to save an individual (identifiable life) than to save the many (statistical lives). Even when the statistics are just shown aside the individual fates, the donations go down. This is called statistical numbing. Daniel Kahneman wrote about two systems of thinking. System 1 is fast, automatic, and involuntary, system 2 is slow, effortful and deliberating. Often system 2 rationalizes in retrospect, what system 1 has perceived. Empathy can be located in system 1. Or, speaking in data visualization terms, it can be called a preattentive attribute that focuses our attention. A good approach to reaching empathy with data visualization is thus to start with the individual fate and then zoom out to the bigger picture. But it is not enough to simply rouse people, there must also be a specific call to action. Not just the status-quo should be shown, but also the better situation that could be.

Personal comment: Especially in the Covid crisis, where statistical data represents thousands of deaths, this is a very pressing topic. Many great examples of empathic and unempathetic data visualizations have emerged in this context.

3 Languages, 3 Aesthetics, 1 Graphic: A Case Study of Visualization in a Multicultural Environment (Nilangika Fernando)*

Nilangika Fernando explained how she takes three different cultural aesthetics in Sri Lanka into account when designing data visualizations. The official languages of Sri Lanka are English, Sinhala, and Tamil. When she published data visualizations from an English context, translated into Sinhala, they would get little traction in Sinhala media. Looking at newspaper frontpages she noticed that each language and culture has it’s own look and feel. Newspaper try to make their frontpage as attractive as possible to the given audience, so they can be used to determine wether an audience has a different design aesthetic. These specific aesthetics could also be seen in online-memes of the different cultures. To analyze an aesthetic one should look at the layout, color, font, images, and narrative. Icons need to match the cultural context. For instance, a savings box in the form of a pig would not be understood in Sri Lanka, or even be considered offensive. Also, the hair and eye color of icons should be appropriate. Then she explained how to bridge this visual gap. She creates the infographic in the language of the primary audience, and then translate them into the others. She works with collaborators who are based in the different cultures. Finally she explained how data visualization can be presented in a non-data culture. She advised to use serve infographics in small doses, give a finished product that is attractive to publish, and to use storytelling.

Mind Games: The Psychology Behind Designing Beautiful, Effective and Impactful Data Viz (Amy Alberts)*

Amy Alberts talked about results of user research at Tableau. Using eye trackers she analyzed how people perceive dashboards. Such eye tracking studies are in themselves data visualizations because the results are shown and analyzed as gazeplots, heatmaps, and gaze opacity maps. Given 10 seconds people focused their attention especially on big numbers, high color contrast, pictures of humans, and maps. People also tended to read the dashboards starting in the upper left corner moving right and down. When the viewing duration was increased, the viewing patterns remained largely the same. But when a specific task was given when viewing a dashboard, the patterns fell apart. So humans are on the one side dumb monkeys, looking with little actual intent, but on the other side also very intelligent in navigating systems to reach a goal. These result are in line with UX research. The mentioned attention-getters can be used purposefully for designing dashboards, notably taking up corporate design elements. Priming can be also be used to focus attention, by saying or writing something related to what you want people to focus on before showing the dashboard.

Are Your Data Visualizations Excluding People? (Larene Le Gassick, Sarah Fossheim, Frank Elavsky)

Iron Quest: Lessons from the Community (Sarah Bartlett)

Data Designer: A Self Portrait (Valentina d‘Efilippo)

Labels Matter (Gaelan Smith)

Beyond Word Clouds: Visualizing the Linguistic Patterns of Political Speeches (Riva Quiroga)

Using Zipf‘s Law to help Understand COVID-19 (Howard Wainer)

Data Visualization Tools

Going Beyond Matplotlib and Seaborn: A Survey of Python Data Visualization Tools (Stephanie Kirmer)*

Stephanie Kirmer provided an overview of six Python data visualization libraries. She included the older standard libraries Mathplotlib (2003) and Seaborn (2012), and the newer libraries Bokeh (2012), Altair (2016), Plotnine (2017), and Plotly (2013). The target criteria she wanted libraries to meet are an easy learning curve, consistent grammar, flexibility, beautiful output, and interactivity. She tested each library with a set of standard charts, and then discussed how the target criteria were met. She advises against using the older libraries. In conclusion she showed for which individual target criterion which of the four newer libraries should be used. For an easy learning curve: Plotnine or Altair. For consistent grammar: Plotnine or Altair. For flexibility: Plotnine or Bokeh, For beautiful images: Altair or Bokeh. For interactivity: Plotly or Bokeh. Generally, Altair is only suitable for small datasets.

Navigating the Wide World of Data Visualization Libraries (for the Web) (Krist Wongsuphasawat)*

Krist Wongsuphasawat explained a framework for choosing data visualization libraries for the web, mainly Javascript libraries. He located libraries within a two-dimensional design space. The x-axis is the level of abstraction from 1 to 5. The y-axis are different categories of API design. Level of abstraction 1 is graphics libraries working on a low level. P5.js, Three.js, and Two.js fall into this category. Level 2 is low-level building blocks. D3, visx, cola, dagre, and others belong into this category. Level 3 is visualization grammars. Vega-lite, Chart Parts, Muze, and G2 are part of this category. Level 4 are high-level building block. Echarts, Highcharts, Plotly, Victory, React-Vis, and Semiotic belong into this category. Level 5 are chart templates. Chart.js and Nivo are part of this category. The other dimension, API design, consists of the categories JSON, JSON with callback, plain Javascript, and framework specific. He then showed how the different libraries are located within this dimension. He then explained how to choose a library. It should allow you to create what you need (custom, rare, or common data visualizations) within the time you have. Familiarity with a specific library plays a role here. Technical aspects that can be considered are performance, the used tech stack, and project lifespan (maintenance of the library in the long term).

ggplot Wizardy: My Favorite Tricks and Secrets for Beautiful Plots in R (Cédric Scherer)*

Cédric Scherer explained how he creates print-ready charts entirely programmed in R with the ggplot2 library and extensions. He refined his R skills mainly within the weekly TidyTuesday challenge. The R community shares extension packages for a big variety of graphs and extra functionalities. He then demonstrated the capabilities of the extension packages he regularly uses in his work. The package ggtext provides improved text rendering. The package ggforce provides annotations. The package ggdist is useful for visualizing distributions and uncertainty. Then he showed several tips for improving charts within the ggplot2 library by changing default parameters. Plot-titles and plot-captions can be aligned with the outer margins. The legend can be placed at the top of the chart. The legend formatting can be improved. The axis labels can be placed closer to the axes. The clipping of elements that protrude beyond the borders of the chart, such as long labels, can be shut off. The outer margin between chart and border of the image can be enlarged. An image can be added to the plot to make it more illustrative. Finally he showed how the patchwork package can be used to combine and arrange several plots.

Data Visualization History

Otto and Gerd in the Chauvet Caves (Nigel Holmes)*

Nigel Holmes explained how basic principles of information design can be traced back to early cave art. The earliest figurative cave art known to date is in Sulawesi from 45 500 years ago. Abstract marks from 70-100 000 years ago have been found in the Blombos cave. Such drawings might have been made by homo sapiens or other early homonids. Many of the known pictures of cave art are reproduced drawings, not actual photos of the art itself. Jumping forward to modern times, in the 1920s Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz developed the Isotype graphic language to display statistical information. Neurath urged the artists to find the essence of the depicted object. Objects are shown in profile, from the side as a silhouette, omitting surface details. At first, icons were cut out from black cardboard, later they were printed as linocuts to obtain this simple appearance. A basic mechanism that is used in Isotype is to combine two icons into one. For instance, a waiter can be represented as a person with a coffee cup. The same principles of depicting the essential outline in sideview, and combining basic element into icons can be found in cave art. With combined elements, rhinos are shown wooly and with their summer coat. Thus it is valid to say that cave painter were the first information designers. “They were counting, recording, explaining, storytelling, while showing only the essentials.” Today the same principles can be found in roadsigns showing animal silhouettes, signs in airports, and emojis.

Florence Nightingale is a Design Hero (RJ Andrews)

Spotting Minard on the Corner Three (Senthil Natarajan)

Data Art and Experimental Case Studies

3D Geo Dataviz: From Insight to Data Art (Craig Taylor)*

Craig Taylor showed spectacular 3D visualizations of traffic data he develops at the company Ito. These cinematic visualizations serve to gather insight and for use as marketing material. He presented the project transit in motion which showed the change of patterns in public bus mobility during a Covid lockdown. He presented several possibilities of representing the data, some of which were quite experimental and artistic. Then he presented the project Europe’s quiet skies which shows the reduction of airplane flights in the Europe during the Covid crisis. In the Q&A session Craig Taylor explained that he uses QGIS and ESRI ArcMap for data preparation and visualizes the data using Houdini, Cinema 4D, and the Octane rendering engine.

Personal comment: This talk demonstrated the controversy around 3D data visualization and use of animations very well. On the one hand beautiful, spectacular images. On the other hand a way of presenting data that make it hard to derive deeper analytical insight.

Data Through Design: Creating a Data Art Exhibition (Sara Eichner)

Using Data in a Fine Art Practice (Wilma Wolf)

Loud Numbers: Telling Stories With Data and Music (Miriam Quick, Duncan Geere)

Step and Repeat: Visualizing Human Motion (Emma Margarite Erenst)

Coding with Fire: Cooking with Data (Ian Johnson, EJ Fox)

Data Visualization Case Studies

A Viral Map (Karim Douieb)*

Karim Douieb showed how he developed an animated visualization of the results of the U.S. presidential election of 2016. This animation went viral on social media. The animation visualizes the fact that land doesn’t vote, people do, by transitioning each state area to a bubble proportional to the population of the state. He presented a detailed walkthrough of how he developed this animation in Javascript, using the Observable working environment and the D3 library. He used a D3 force layout to distribute the bubbles, and Flubber for the animated transitions. He published his result as a looping gif on social media. The attention that his work received when posted by others exceeded that of his own posting. He noted that a watermark should be added, to avoid one’s work being shared widely without attribution.

Mapping The Covid19 Research Landscape: The Power of Data Viz Over Black Boxes (Caroline Goulard)*

Caroline Goulard presented a tool for visualizing scientific papers about Covid. There currently exist more than 50 000 publications on this topic. This make it very difficult for researchers to find the relevant ones. “Dark knowledge” is a big problem. 50 % of publication on Covid are not cited, 6 % are not in English. The currently available tools such as Pubmed, Scopus, and Google Scholar only display search results as paginated lists. It is not transparent how these ranked lists were generated. Also the user needs to precisely specify what he is looking for. Caroline Goulard proposes spatial mapping as part of the solution. This helps get a mental representation of the data, helps interaction, and helps memorization. They developed two approaches. The first approach is a citations network graph, implemented via a force-directed graph. The second approach is a dimensions reduction map. Here publications that have similar keywords are located closer together in two-dimensional space. This replicates walking through a library and looking into the nearby shelves. This second approach was favored by interviewed users. Clusters of publications were created using hierarchical clustering. Each cluster was assigned a color. In the interface colors can also be assigned to years of publication, fields of study, and keywords. The interface also allows to look at the detailed metadata of each publication. In user testing it was found that people mainly use search functionalities, and then look at the map for confirmation. Users found using the tool a “disturbing experience”. So a sexy interface will not guarantee, that a tool will actually be used next time, instead of the standard tools. In the Q&A section Caroline Goulard explained that the application was programmed with WebGL and the HDBSCAN library.

How Do We Translate Cultural Experiences Into Data Stories? (Mick Yang, Isabella Chua)

Narrating a Nation Through Numbers – India in Pixels (Ashris Choudhury)

Data Viz for Non-Profit (Guillermina Sutter Schneider, Luis Ahumada)

Data Points Are People Too (Bronwen Robertson, Saja Hathman, Joachaim Mangalima, Zdenek Hynek)

#BlackInDataWeek: Connecting and Celebrating Black People in Data Fields (Rith Agbakoba, Jarrett C. Hurms, Simone Webb)

Visualizing the history of mass incarceration (Sarah Fawson)

Visualizing Transgender Day of Remembrance: Lessons in Bearing Witness Through Making Losses Visible and Visceral (Kelsey Campbell, Cathryn Ploehn)

Visualization of Violence in Colombia (Gustavo Ojeda)

Are We Fine With Global warming? The Role of Nuclear Power & Low Carbon Energy (Harim Jung)

Using DataViz to Re-sensitive the World to Animals (Karol Orzechowski)

An Odd Couple’s Journey Towards SciArt: Design Meets Science and Vice-Versa (Greta Carrete Vega, Estefania Casal)

Shaping Data Viz Through Student Newsrooms (Raeedah Wahid, Jessica Li)

Becoming a data driven learner (Aminah Aliu)

At the conference Jason Forrest and Mary Aviles announced that Nightingale, the online publication of the Data Visualization Society, will also appear as a printed magazine.

Thanks to DVS Events Director Mollie Pettit and the rest of the volunteering organization team for this event: Duncan Geere, Evelina Judeikyte, Gabby Merite, Lloyd Richards, Maxene Graze, Marília Ferreira da Cunha, Frederic Fery, Céline Genest, Katy Liang,Jennifer Li, Bill Tran, Yi Ning Wong Isabella Chua, Akshit Aggarwal, Nöelle Rakotondravony, Naomi Smulders.

Introducing Iterative Blogging

Currently, ideas, notes, and image material I would like to write out as blog posts are piling up. Writing a good blog article with a well-structured text, suitable image material, and clean references may take me a day of work or more. But I currently lack that time.

So I have come up with a different way of approaching blogging. I call it „iterative blogging“. Surely, the concept is nothing new, and it has been done like this by others before. In fact, the exact same term, with pretty much the same meaning is used by Max Hoffman in his blog post here.

The basic idea is to think of a blog post not as an article that is written out and published once, but as a work in progess. A first readable draft version is quickly published, which can then be refined over the next weeks or months.

This is similar in principle to a wiki article: the text starts out small, and is extended and refined over time. This basic principle can also be found in extreme programming. This way of programming refutes the traditional separation into specification and implementation, and instead iterations are done in small steps on runnable code.

Fractal Sierpinsky triangle (Source: wikimedia commons)

From the metrics of this website I know that only a very small proportion of my blog posts are read by larger numbers of readers. So, it is not really worthwhile to write out detailed blog articles. Many readers might even be happier to read a concise explanation than a longer elaboration. A blog is a very low-barrier way of publishing one’s own work. Often writing the blog post out is more important than it being read.

Iterative blogging may have several advantages. It takes much less time to write out and publish a first readable draft than a polished article. Because the blog post is seen as a work in progress there is less pressure of it to be „perfect“. If further information on a topic is encountered it can be integrated into the text. These blog posts can serve as first drafts to extend into full articles for publishing on platforms such as Medium.

An disadvantage might be that it encourages creating larger masses of low-quality content. However, if one regrets publishing a low-quality piece, it can easily be reverted back to an unpublished draft with contemporary website content management frameworks, like wordpress for this website.

Another disadvantage might be that it is more difficult to find the right time to post the link to the article on social media. If people read a short draft version of the text, they will not come back a few months later to read the extended version. A practical approach might be to post the draft version, and then repost it if large extensions to the text are made after a few months. Another practical thing to do is to include an editing history with the major milestones at the end of each blog post, or possible also a version number.

So, iterative blogging is someting I will try out. Whether it really works, I will know in a few weeks or months.

Blog post history:

19.02.2021: First version published

Phänologischer Kalender 2021

Für das Jahr 2021 habe ich wieder einen Kalender gestaltet. Der Kalender basiert auf dem Prinzip der phänologischen Jahreszeiten. Die zehn phänologischen Jahreszeiten werden aufgrund von Entwicklungsstadien von sogenannten Zeigerplanzen im Jahreszyklus definiert (mehr Infos siehe unten). Pro phänologischer Jahreszeit hat der Kalender ein Blatt, auf dem die zugehörigen Informationen zu Zeigerpflanzen und deren Entwicklungsstadien stehen, sowie ein impressionistisches Gemälde, das eine Landschaft zu dieser Jahrezeit zeigt.

Der Kalender beinhaltet die gesetzlichen Feiertage aller deutschen Bundesländer sowie die wichtigsten Festtage. Die bundeweit geltenden gesetzlichen Feiertage sind in rot markiert.

Der Kalender kann hier zum freien Ausdrucken für private Zwecke heruntergeladen werden:

Hier als Vorschau beispielhaft die Seite für den Spätsommer:

Illustriert ist der Kalender mit impressionistischen Gemälden von Camille Pissarro (4x), Claude Monet (2x), Eward Willis Redfield, Pál Szinyei Merse, Isaak Iljitsch Lewitan, Olga Wisinger-Florian und Vilhelms Purvītis. Ich musste lange suchen, um für jede phänologische Jahreszeit ein passendes Bild zu finden. Camille Pissarro ist mehrmals vertreten, da seine zahlreichen Gemälde von Bäumen sich besonders gut im Jahreszyklus einordnen lassen. Bei manchen Gemälden ist es jedoch diskutabel, ob sie hier zur passenden phänologischen Jahreszeit gezeigt werden, oder nicht eine vorher oder nacher stehen sollten.

Der verwendete Font ist Jost von indestructible type. Es ist eine sehr gelungene freie open source Futura Variante, mit zahlreichen Schriftschnitten. Einziger Kritikpunkt aus meiner Sicht ist das nicht-geometrische kleine „a“.

Der Kalender wurde mit der open source Desktop Publishing Software Scribus erstellt.

Hier noch der erklärende Text zum Kalender, der sich auch im Kalenderdokument auf der zweiten Seite befindet:

Was ist ein phänologischer Kalender?

Im allgemeinen Sprachgebrauch wird das Jahr in die vier Jahreszeiten Frühling, Sommer, Herbst und Winter unterteilt. Einen deutlich differenzierteren Blick auf die Jahreszeiten erlaubt die Phänologie, also die Beobachtung der jährlichen Wachstumszyklen von Pflanzen. Frühling, Sommer und Herbst werden hier jeweils in drei Unterjahreszeiten unterteilt. Die zehn phänologischen Jahreszeiten lauten: Vorfrühling, Erstfrühling, Vollfrühling, Frühsommer, Hochsommer, Spätsommer, Frühherbst, Vollherbst, Spätherbst und Winter. Dieser Kalender hat je ein Kalenderblatt für jede dieser Jahreszeiten, wobei der Winter zweimal auftritt.

Definiert werden diese Jahreszeiten anhand der Entwicklungsstadien von sogenannten Zeigerpflanzen. Entwicklungsstadien, die dabei betrachtet werden, sind:

  • Beginn der Blattentfaltung
  • Beginn der Blüte
  • Erste reife Früchte
  • Beginn der Blattverfärbung
  • Beginn des Blattfalls
  • (Ende des Blattfalls (alle Blätter sind abgefallen))

Das Kalenderblatt für eine phänologische Jahreszeit zeigt jeweils die relevanten Entwicklungsstadien und Zeigerpflanzen. Diejenige Zeigerpflanze, die in Deutschland üblicherweise zur Definition der jeweiligen phänologischen Jahreszeit verwendet wird, ist in rot markiert.

Der Beginn der phänologischen Jahreszeiten ist von Region zu Region und von Jahr zu Jahr unterschiedlich. Der Kalender ist so konzipiert, dass idealerweise beim Beobachten der nächsten Jahreszeit zum nächsten Kalenderblatt weitergeblättert wird. Alternativ kann tendenziell etwas früh umgeblättert werden, sobald sich der erste Tag auf dem jeweiligen Kalenderblatt ereignet. Hier wird das Umblättern durch einen Pfeil am Ende der jeweiligen Woche angezeigt. Oder es kann tendenziell etwas spät umgeblättert werden, indem ab dem 1. März jeweils zum Monatsanfang umgeblättert wird.

Illustriert werden die jeweiligen Jahreszeiten mit impressionistischen Gemälden. Impressionistische Maler haben ihre Gemälde bevorzugt en plein air, also unter freiem Himmel in der Natur gemalt. So entstanden unmittelbare Landschaftsbilder zu verschiedenen Zeiten im Jahr. Bei Gestaltung dieses Kalenders war es nicht einfach, zu jeder phänologischen Jahreszeit ein passendes Bild zu finden. Viele phänologischen Erscheinungen, wie z.B. die allerersten Blüten im Erstfrühling, sind offenbar zu kleinteilig um ein gutes Motiv für impressionistische Farbflächenmalerei zu ergeben. Bei einigen Bildern ist es eine Interpretationsfrage in welcher phänologischen Jahreszeit sie gemalt wurden. Zeigt z.B. das Bild, das für den Erstfrühling gewählt wurde, Kirschblüten oder doch Apfelblüten? Wenn Sie selber zum Ergebnis gelangen, dass ein Bild zur falschen phänologischen Jahreszeit gezeigt wird, dann hat dieser Kalender seinen Zweck erfüllt.

Keith Haring: art at a specific time and place

The Museum Folkwang in Essen hosted a big retrospective on Keith Haring from August to November 2020. I visited this exhibition mainly because I was interested in his highly recognizable and simple graphic style. But what struck me is that Keith Haring‘s art emanates a very specific Zeitgeist. His art combines a set of influences that could only have been brought together by a young gay man involved in the New York graffiti scene in the 1980s.

Keith Haring in 1986
Keith Haring in 1986 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Keith Haring’s biography is shortly outlined in the following. Then the elements of his specific graphic style are discussed. Finally the influences that formed his life and art are laid out.

The main stations of Keith Haring’s short and intensive life are:

  • 1958: Keith Haring is born in Reading, Pennsylvania and grows up in nearby Kutztown.
  • 1976: He begins studying advertisement art at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He quickly breaks of his studies and works as a free artist.
  • 1978: Keith Haring moves to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts.
  • 1979: He moves to the East Village in New York and is involved in the gay community and the underground art and graffiti community there.
  • 1980: He leaves the School of Visual Arts, convinced that he can learn nothing more there. He gains increasing acclaim as an artist. He begins making his Subway Drawings on unused black billboards in the New York subway,
  • 1981: He gains public attention via several exhibitions.
  • 1982: Art collectors are buying his works. He is officially represented by gallery owner Tony Shafraz.
  • 1983: Keith Haring begins traveling internationally to present and locally create his art.
  • 1986: The Pop Shop opens in New York, where Keith Haring merchandise articles are sold.
  • 1988: He is diagnosed with AIDS.
  • 1990: Keith Haring dies, aged 31, from the effects of his HIV infection.

Keith Haring’s graphic style is highly recognizable. He depicts simple iconic persons, animals, and objects in a way reminiscent of graffiti and comics. Specific elements of his style are:

  • Clear flowing lines: lines of equal width form soft contours and patterns. People, animals, and objects depicted in this way are simplified and iconic. This visual language was influenced by comics that Keith Haring’s father drew for him as a child and the graffiti he later encountered in New York. Keith Haring drew these lines with paintbrushes and pens and did not use spray cans.
Keith Haring works
Works by Keith Haring showing typical flowing lines (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
  • Patterns of consistent density: Beyond the lines that form the contours of object, he often filled the remaining spaces with lines and dots that form a pattern of consistent density. The resulting pictures sometimes look like abstract patterns from afar, and only reveal their pictorial content from up close. This visual style reminds of the abstract art of Pierre Alechinsky and Jackson Pollock, and Egyptian and Aztec ornamental art. When he drew a big window painting in Australia, the local public interpreted it as referring to Aboriginal art.
Keith Haring: The Matrix, 1986 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
Keith Haring: The Matrix, 1986, detail (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
  • Few contrasting colors: his artworks often have only 2-3 contrasting colors. He often drew black lines on colorful or white lines on black backgrounds.
Keith Haring: Untitled, 1983
Keith Haring: Untitled, 1983 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
  • Variety of themes: Keith Haring’s more popular works simply seem joyful, depicting motives such as dancing people, radiating babies, barking dogs, UFOs and televisions. But many of his works also include political messages against gentrification, racism, apartheid, homophobia, drug abuse, and AIDS. His works did always also include a dark streak of homoerotic sex and violence. After his AIDS diagnosis this extended into dark hellish visions of disease and death (see picture below), reminiscent of the tableaus of Hieronymous Bosch.
Keith Haring: Untitled, 1986
Keith Haring: Untitled, 1986 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)

Keith Haring’s life and art combines specific influences that could only have been brought together by a young gay man living in New York in the 1980s. His main influences were:

  • Academic high art: Despite appearances, Keith Haring’s roots do not lie in the graffiti and street art scene. He studied at two art and design schools. When he saw an exhibition of abstract paintings by Pierre Alechinsky in 1977/78, he saw similarities to his own work (see example below). This convinced him that he had something relevant to contribute with his own art. Besides western abstract art, his influences also include Japanese calligraphy, Aztec symbols (see picture below) and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Within a few years, he gained public acclaim by the art establishment with collectors buying his works, and official representation by gallery owner Tony Shafraz. Already in 1982 Keith Haring participated at the documenta VI art show in Kassel, Germany.
Pierre Alechinsky: The Night, 1952
Pierre Alechinsky: The Night, 1952 (Source: Tate Gallery)
Aztec Codex Borgia: page 23 (Source: Wikimedia commons)
  • Grafiti: After moving to New York, Keith Haring became fascinated with the grafiti he saw on walls and subway trains. He met early grafiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz, and cooperated with Angel Ortiz (aka LA II). Keith Haring did not use spray cans himself but drew his lines with markers and paint brushes. In 1980 he began drawing with white chalk on unused billboards, covered with black paper, in the New York subway. He saw this is as a possibility to keep up with the grafiti artists, without copying them. He also painted many large scale murals in New York and later all over the world. Keith Haring liked to stage his painting processes as performances to music, taking up elements of hip hop and breakdance culture.
Keith Haring and Angel Ortiz: Untitled, 1982
Angel Ortiz and Keith Haring: Untitled, 1982 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
Keith Haring: Subway Drawings, 1983-85
Keith Haring: Subway Drawings, 1983-85 (Photographed at Folkwang Museum)
  • Pop Art and popular art: Keith Haring named the comics his father drew for him as a child as one of his earliest influences. He disliked painting with oil paint on canvas, and instead preferred to work with markers on paper or to paint on large colored vinyl tarpaulins. He produced thousands of artworks, working quickly without preparatory sketches. Keith Haring met his idol Andy Warhol in 1983, who became his friend and mentor. Keith Haring wanted his art to be for everyone. He made his subway drawings to reach a large audience, not actually earning any money from them. In 1986 the Pop Shop opened in New York, where Keith Haring Merchandise articles such as T-Shirts, Stickers and posters were sold at affordable prices.
Keith Haring and Andy Warhol: Andy Mouse, 1986 (Source: Keith Haring Foundation)
  • Gay culture: Keith Haring’s art is of course not specifically “gay”. But his identity as an openly homosexual man shines through in many ways. When he moved to New York he became a regular visitor of the local gay clubs, namely the multi-cultural Paradise Garage. His artworks often show penises and homoeroticism and seldomly seem to depict women. When the AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s in the gay community, people around him were dying, among them also his black ex-boyfriend Juan Dubose. In 1988 Keith Haring received his AIDS diagnosis. In the following two years before his death he produced many artworks on the topic of AIDS, and financially supported anti-AIDS campaigns. His early death of AIDS at age 31, at the peak of his popularity, contributed to him becoming a legendary artist. This way his work will always be associated with a specific 1980s atmosphere.
Keith Haring: Silence = Death, 1989
Keith Haring: Silence = Death, 1989 (Source: Keith Haring Foundation)

Keith Haring’s style is highly recognizable with clear flowing lines, patterns of consistent density, and a reduced color palette of few colors. His works often seem joyful, but also address serious political issues. Living in New York he combined a specific set of influences from academic high art, pop art, and grafiti. As a gay man dying young from AIDS in the 1980s, his work emanates a specific 1980s atmosphere.

Sources:

Exhibition at the Folkwang Museum Essen: “Keith Haring”, 21.08 – 29.11.2020, https://www.museum-folkwang.de/de/aktuelles/ausstellungen/ausblick/keith-haring.html

Darren Pih (Editor): “Keith Haring”, 2019, Hatje Cantz Verlag

Elke Buhr: “Jetzt erst recht” in Monopol, Magazin für Kunst und Leben, Juni 2020

Video: Ben Anthony: “Keith Haring – Street Art Boy”, https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/098102-000-A/keith-haring-street-art-boy/

Wikipedia.de : article on Keith Haring: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Haring

Keith Haring Foudation Website: https://www.haring.com/

Modernist Design Chairs: the Design Lineage of the IKEA Poäng

Recently I bought myself an IKEA Poäng as a comfortable armchair for reading. I’m quite fond of the chair. For the low price one gets a pretty classy looking piece of furniture.

In the Bauhaus year 2019 I had already learned a lot about modernist furniture design. Researching a bit more about the construction of the Poäng, with its cantilever construction made of bent laminated wood, it fascinated me that the chair could be linked to some of the most renowned designers and chair designs of the modernist epoch. Names that thus appear in the Poäng’s ancestry are:

The IKE Poäng is thus a good point of depart for discussing some basics about modernist chair design.

Just after finishing this infographic, I coincidently stumbled into a chair design exhibition in the Lippisches Landesmuseum Detmold. It was great to see all the iconic chairs named in the infographic there. The most renowned museum for chair and furniture design in Germany is the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, which I also visited some years ago. The museum also has a great digital catalogue available. There even is a museum dedicated solely to cantilever chairs, the Tecta Kragstuhlmuseum in Lauenförde, which I hope to visit some day.

IKEA is known to sell variants of famous design classics. A variant of Alvar Aalto’s stool 60 is also available in the form of IKEAS stool Frosta. At the time of this writing, in August 2020, IKEA does not sell this model anymore, but similar stools are also available from other manufactuctures. They work beautifully as side tables for the IKEA armchair.

Below now the infographic showing the design linage of the IKEA Poäng armchair. The infographic can also be downloaded here as an A3 sized pdf for better viewing or printing.


Infographic showing modernist design chairs and the design lineage of the IKEA Poäng armchair. Design and text by Data Visualization Dr. Johannes Wirges


In the following, I want to add a few notes on the making of this graphic. Initally I started with a free flowing layout (see photo below on the left) but noticed that the large amounts of text, taking up more space than the pictures, would need careful planning. The basic idea was to use a modular grid with each picture corresponding to one and each text to two adjectent grid modules. Some puzzling was required to find a balanced arrangement (see photo below on the right). The content turned out to fit into a grid of 5 x 7 modules.

Sketches for planning the layout of the modernist design chair infographic

Paper cutouts were quite useful for testing different arrangements. The photo below shows the final layout I ended up using.

The screenshot below shows how layout ended up in Scribus. The baseline grid provides the underlying structure. Strictly following the modular grid structure looked quite clunky and cramped in many parts, so captions and text were indented. This lead to the forming of text columns that give structure to the infographic.

Modular grid and baseline grid used for layouting the modernist design chair infographic

Another interesting detail was the scaling of photos. These were gathered from different sources and thus had different dimensions. I wanted to display them correctly to scale. For correctly sizing them, I thus looked up or estimated their seat height and used this as a reference length.

Scaling of modernist design chair photos by use of their seat height

Anton Stankowski: the best and worst of postwar German graphic design?

Visiting the art museum Gelsenkirchen recently, I came across a small exhibition of prints by Anton Stankowski and his associate Karl Duschek. In German design circles Stankowski is mainly known for having designed the logo of the Deutsche Bank (see below). Looking at the exhibited prints, my impressions wavered between delight and distaste. I had rarely seen design work that seemed so typically German, both in a positive and a negative sense.

Photo portrait of Anton Stankowski
Anton Stankowski in 1958 (Source: Wikimedia Commons: Stankowski-Stiftung)
Logo of the Deutsche Bank
Logo of the Deutsche Bank (Source: Wikimedia Commons: Deutsche Bank AG)

Researching further about the life and work of Anton Stankowski lead me to two digital exhibitions. A website is available that shows parts of an exhibition from 2006 commemorating Stankowski’s 100th birthday. A current exhibition in Berlin about Stankowski and Duschek’s corporate design work, titled „Marken:Zeichen. Das Grafische Atelier Stankowski + Duschek“, is available as a virtual tour (texts in German only).

During his lifetime Stankowski had contact with some of the most notable German and Swiss graphic designers, of which I will name only a selection here. The mutual influences might be one reason why his work seems so typical for postwar Germany.

Anton Stankowski was born in 1906 in Gelsenkirchen. After an apprenticeship as a decorative painter, he studied at the Folkwang University in Essen under Max Burchartz from 1927 on. Max Burchartz was one of the proponents of a modernist layout style (Elementare Typografie) that combined grotesque fonts, black and white photography, and photo collages.

From 1929 on Stankowski worked in Zürich, Switzerland. There he was part of a circle of artists that included Herbert Matter and Max Bill. Herbert Matter is mainly known for posters that integrate text and photographs. Max Bill is known today for his Bauhaus style watches, and for being a founding member and director of the influential Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm.

From 1938 on Stankowski worked in Stuttgart, Germany, There he was again part of a circle of artists and designers, among them Willi Baumeister, again an important proponent of modernist typography.

In 1964 Anton Stankowski lectured at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. This school was a design school in the tradition of the Bauhaus, with a strongly functionalist leaning. The school only existed from 1953 to 1968.

From 1960 to 1972 Stankowski was head of the committee for the visual design of the Olympic Games in Munich. The pictograms that Otl Aicher designed for the Olympics are today seen as landmarks of information design. Otl Aicher also happens to be one of the founders of the HfG Ulm.

In 1972 Karl Duschek, 41 years younger than Stankowski, entered Stankowski’s design agency. In 1982 the agency was renamed to Stankowski + Duschek. Many of the corporate designs created by Stankowski were thus codesigned by Duschek. Nevertheless Karl Duschek remains largely unknown to the general public today. In 1998 Anton Stankowski died in Esslingen near Stuttgart.

From today’s perspective it is notable that Stankowski made no distinction between art and design: “It doesn’t matter whether it’s art or design, it only has to be good.” He extensively noted visual ideas in his sketchbooks. His artworks he realized in different media: drawings, paintings, prints, photographies, and sculptures. Visual ideas that he developed in his free artworks found their way into his functional graphic designs. A visual element typical for his work is the diagonal line, which can also be seen in the Deutsche Bank Logo. Today the Stankowski foundation awards a price to people that combine art and design. The photos below show some art prints by Stankowski and Duschek at display in the art museum Gelsenkirchen.

Art prints by Stankowski and Duschek on exhibition in the art museum Gelsenkirchen
Art prints by Stankowski and Duschek on exhibition in the art museum Gelsenkirchen
Art prints by Stankowski and Duschek on exhibition in the art museum Gelsenkirchen

Anton Stankowski was a pioneer of corporate design, working together with Karl Duschek from 1972 on. Many renowned German institutions hired Stankowski. Companies that are still using his logos today include Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Börse, Messe Frankfurt, Münchener Rückversicherung, Deutscher Werkbund, Viessmann and many others (also see picture below for some logo examples). Stankowski and Duschek did not just develop logos, but full corporate designs in the modern sense. Use of the logo, colors, layouts, and other visual elements were specified for the clients in corporate design manuals.

Logos designed by Anton Stankowski and Karl Duschek
Corporate logos designed by Anton Stankowski and Karl Duschek (Source: Cover of book published by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Anton Stankowski’s work seems typical for postwar Germany to me. His visual language is straightforward and clear. Forms are geometrically constructed with straight lines. These forms look like they were devised on an engineer’s drawing board. Colors are bright, clear, and contrasting. A red is red and an orange is orange, there is no place for subtle shades and nuances. The use of forms and colors could be interpreted as a late echo of the Bauhaus design language. There forms were constructed from the basic geometric elements of squares, circles and triangles. At the Bauhaus the three primary colors blue, red, and yellow were mainly used.

The corporate designs seem systematic, rational, and functional. Stankowski often used the typeface Akzidenz-Grotesk (very similar to Helvetica preferred by Swiss graphic designers), which further reinforced the neutral and rational impression.

The characteristics listed up to now are rather positive: straightforward, clear, systematic, rational. These are traits that were and are still associated with German design and engineering. However, looking at Stankowski’s designs from today’s perspective, a lot of it also seems horribly blunt, brutish even. There are no ornamental elements in his designs, nothing that is not systematically constructed. This leaves no place for elegance, sophistication, or humor.

In my opinion this reveals something about German culture in general. We tend to focus on the concept and are wary of too much outward pomp. If something is too beautifully packaged we doubt that it can deliver functionality. I have worked extensively with French, and also with Italian and Spanish colleagues. These are cultures that seem to put much more emphasis on outward elegance. With the instantaneous exchange of visual ideas via the internet nowadays, strong cultural differences between designers and artists are disappearing. Still it seems worthwhile to note design traits that seem specific to some countries.

Visualizing Spatiotemporal Data with Kepler.gl: all Critical Mass Essen 2019 bicycle tours

Geodata with timestamps can be beautifully visualized as animated maps. My main tool of choice for creating such maps up to now has been QGIS with the Time Manager plugin (examples see here, here, and here). Some time ago I came across another promising free and open source tool for creating such animations: Kepler.gl. The tool was developed by Uber to visualize and analyze mobility data. It is based on WebGL, a Javascript API for running interactive 2D and 3D applications in a browser. The tool is web hosted but all data remains within the local browser. No registration is required to use the web tool.

The most noticeable about Kepler.gl is its cool futuristic mapping style. Below is a typical example map shown on the Kepler.gl website:

The aspects that contribute to the futuristic appearance are:

  • The use of dark mode, i.e. a black or dark background on which bright content is displayed. (White/light backgrounds and satellite images are also available.)
  • The use of transparency and overlay effects which make the map content appear to emit light and glow on the dark background.
  • The display of 3-dimensional maps, with or without a height dimension, even in cases where a 2-dimensional display would be sufficient.

All these elements can be reconfigured, if a less showy appearance is desired.

The tool is quite easy and intuitive to use. It is still worthwhile to read through the entire user guide to be aware of all available functionalities. The main field of application for the tool seems to be the dynamic visualization of large spatiotemporal data and visual cluster/density analysis.

Point data can be directly visualized as Point or Icon layers. Origin destination data can be visualized as Arc or Line layers. Trajectories can be visualized as a Trip layer in a specific data format. GeoJSON files can be included as Polygon layers. Point data can be spatially aggregated/binned as Grid, S2 (a special kind of grid), Hexbin, and H3 (a special kind of hexbin) layers. The clustering of data points can be shown as Clusters or Heatmaps.

Data can be imported in CSV or GeoJSON formats with Web Mercator (EPSG:3857 – WGS8) coordinates. Own Mapbox styles can be integrated as backgrounds. Maps can be exported as images or as a standalone interactive HTML files. It is not possible to directly export videos. A separate screen recording software I necessary to record a video.

I tested the capabilities of Kepler.gl with a dataset of all critical mass Essen bicycle tours of 2019. This data I logged personally as a participant of these tours. At critical mass events, large numbers of cyclists meet and drive through a city. This serves to raise awareness for cycling as a means of transportation. I have already used such logged tours several times to test different GIS animation technologies.

Here the final resulting animated maps:

Animated maps are fun to look at and to create, but are not always the best way of providing analytical insight. For pure analytical purposes they should be accompanied by static maps, and diagrams showing aggregated values (histograms, sums etc.). I discussed the advantages of animated vs. static maps in a previous blog post here.

Here a discussion of the main patterns that can be seen in these animated maps, and some additional contextual information:

The first animated map in the video shows all 12 tour itineraries. Tours start at 19:15 at the central Willy-Brandt-Platz in Essen and usually end there at about 21:00. Two tours ended at other locations were parties then took place.

The second animation shows the tours as moving dots. The dots are sized according to the number of participants. The number of participants in the months January to December were: 26, 82, 77, 66, 78, 160, 63, 51, 85, 84, 65, 15. These numbers were counted at the beginning of tours. Many particpants do not cycle along for the entire 2 hours. Most cyclists join the tour regularly, with a few infrequent and first-time cyclist joining every month. In cold and rainy weather (here: June, August, December) the number of participants significantly drops. In summer more casual cyclists and children join the tour. The tours that venture furthest away from the city center seem to be ones with a medium number of seasoned participants in decent weather.

The third, fourth, and fifth animation show the density of logged points in different variants. A high density of points was logged for the inner city ring. A trip down the Rüttenscheider Straße to the south is part of most tours. There are lots of restaurants and bars along this street which gives the tour lots of public exposure.

The sixth animation shows the logged speed. Overall speeds tend to be lower in the inner city area. In the outskirts speeds are higher with stops clearly visible at intersections. The slower overall speeds when cycling in the city also contributes to the higher density of logged points seen in the previous animations

The seventh animation shows the logged altitude. A clear south-north slope can be seen with the highest point of about 240 meter above sea level measured in the south, and the lowest point of 85 above seal level in the north. This isn’t much slope compared to other cities, but still makes cycling too exhausting for some inhabitants.

Here a few more notes on the technical details of creating these animations:

The used CSV file contains about 11 000 lines and has a size of 870 kB. The application runs smoothly with a file of this size.

The drawing order/layering on the map seems to be determined by the order in which the points appear in the dataset. So I reordered the raw data according to the timestamp, to make later logged points appear above earlier ones.

A filter needs to be defined for a field with timestamps to enable the time control. This is one of the few things I did not find self-explanatory. The timeline then runs from the earliest to the latest point in time appearing in the data.

I wanted the entire dataset to be successively added to the map, starting with an empty map at the earliest point in time. (In the QGIS Time Manager this is a standard feature called „aggregate features“.) A workaround to achieve this in Kepler.gl is to add a dummy point to the dataset at a much earlier point in time, about the duration of the entire datasets time interval previously, and then adjust the time window to include the entire time interval of the dataset. As this sounds much more complicated than it is, here a screenshot with the resulting time control in the lower right:

Extracting a video in decent quality from the web interface proved to be more difficult than expected. After much tinkering here is the settings I ended up using:

On my small laptop monitor I reduced the scaling from 150 % (recommended default) to 100 % with a screen resolution of 1920 x 1080 px.

I adjusted the scaling in the browser (using Crtl +, Ctr ) and adjusted the zoom level of the web map to display an appropriate map section. There is no clear map window in the Kepler.gl web interface that could be selected for screen recording.

I used CamStudio (a free open source screen recording software) to record the animation running in Kepler.gl. The default unsatisfying codec I replace by the Xvid codec. I set the quality to 70 %, capture frames every 20 milliseconds, playback rate 50 frames/second. I used a fixed region in CamStudio of 1280 x 780 px with no fixed corner. Selecting the region to record manually before every screen capture unfortunately lead to small deviations between recordings. I set the Kepler.gl animation to 0,2x speed, to get a good quality screen recording.

Using Shotcut (a free open source video editing software), I cut the video files, sped them up by a factor of 4, and added the captions. The recording at slow speed and speeding up in postprocessing was the most crucial point in extracting a good quality video.

So, how does Kepler.gl compare to QGIS with the Time Manager Plugin? Kepler.gl seems to be a great tool for ad hoc temporal geodata visualization and visual density analysis. Creating a pretty visualization with the tool is surprisingly simple and fast. It is difficult though to break out of the given visual framework. So, for a visualization that requires the customization of many map elements, I would still prefer QGIS with its full mapping capabilities. The QGIS Time Manager exports frames with time information but no legend. Kepler.gl can show both time and legend on the web interface, but these are not suitably formatted for a screen capture. In my case extracting usable videos from the web interface proved to be quite challenging. This should be less tricky when using more powerful hardware.

Digital Museums of Design, Modern Art, and Architecture

During the current Corona pandemic, museums and exhibitions everywhere are closed and will apparently stay so for the next weeks or months. Visiting museums is something I already miss. A longer bicycle tour to a museum is my standard Sunday routine. Because I am always working from home as a freelancer on Monday to Friday, I really feel an urge to get out and experience new things on the weekends.

In this lockdown situation, articles recommending digital museums are surfacing on diverse chanels. Under normal circumstances I would scarcely be interested, but now this is a very interesting option. Thus I thoroughly looked into the possibilities that contemporary digital museums provide.

What is a digital museum? Without getting too philosophical about it, one could describe it as a webpage that allows visitors to experience the artefacts at display in a museum in digital form. Three ways of presenting exhibitions are common:

  • Catalogues (archives, databases): Photographed artefacts with descriptions are made accessible via searchable databases. Applying filters to the content is necessary to get something useful out of this (for instance by art epoch, also very useful: only showing those objects on display in the physical museum). The enjoyability of these catalogues increases with functionalities such as short explanatory texts, showing curated highlights, or showing crosslinks between objects. A great example of this format is the catalogue of the Städelmuseum (Frankfurt, Germany):
  • Slideshows (articles, stories): For a specific topic several photographed artefacts are shown accompanied by longer explanatory text. This is often done in scrollytelling format, where new content dynamically appears as the reader scrolls down. A great example of this format are these slideshows of new acqusitions by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA):
  • Virtual museums (360° immersive experiences): The museum rooms are replicated as 360° views. The entire museum can be navigated from skipping from one viewing point to the next. In many cases the images are of such high resolution that the lables at the exhibits can be read. In some cases clicking on objects opens explanatory text windows or higher resolution photos. Audio descriptions may also be added. A great example of this format is the virtual tour of a part of the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, Netherlands):

Some museums make use of all of these formats. Further multimedia content such as videos and podcast are also often provided on the museum website.

The single best ressource for digital museums is Google Arts & Culture. Many of the most renowned museums of the world present parts of their collection on the site. I very much recommend to browse and search the incredibly long list of participating museums (also see image below). Within the site, the content is provided in the three formats discussed above. Immersive 360° views are availabe on many museum pages when scrolling down. It needs to be taken into account though, that many museums provide some of their best content only on their own websites.

For German museums the best single source seems to be Museum Digital. This is a searchable catalog of photographed exhibits provided by more than 600 German museums:

Here a list of the best digital museums I found in the domains of design, modern art, and architecture. If you are interested in other genres you could take a look at this list here (in German).

Digital design museums:

Digital modern art museums:

Digital architecture museums:

  • Streetview within google maps provides a nice way to take a 360° look at architecture around the world. Simply drag and drop the yellow person icon on the lower right onto any blue line or point on the map. Google has prepared content for many main roads. Individuals have added many single 360° viewpoints for popular sightseeing spots. Content of this type is also directly available in Google Arts & Culture here.
  • 3D view within google maps makes it possible to take a bird’s eye view at architecture (where 3D data is available). Simply activate the satellite view on the lower left, and then click on the globe icon in the lower right. Press control and press the left mouse button to rotate the view. Alternatively you can use Google Earth to look at 3D views.
  • UNESCO World Heritage List: a searchable catalogue with photos and videos.
  • World Monuments Fund: a searchable catalogue with photos
  • Museo della Civilità Romana (Rome, Italy): in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue, and 360° views.
  • Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism (Seoul, South Korea): in Google Arts and Culture: with slideshows, catalogue
  • SOS Brutalism: a catalogue of brutalist architecture

The list is far from complete, but hopefully contains enough interesting tips to whet your appetite. With museums closed for the next weeks or months it will be interesting to find further pearls and to see if new digital museums are made available.

Designing Information Graphics for Different Audiences

Information graphics should be designed for the target group they address. This is common good practice for any graphic design. The series of infographics shown below provide the rare opportunity to see the same informational content designed for four different target audiences: the age groups of preschool children, school children, teenagers, and adults.

These information graphics show instructions for thoroughly washing one’s hands. They are available as stickers to be stuck on mirrors in toilets. They are provided by the German Federal Office of Health Education (Bundeszentrale für Gesundheitliche Aufklärung) for download here, under a creative commons license.

Some of the choices made by the designer(s) can be a matter of debate. In any case the underlying principle is demonstrated very well: Text, fonts, imagery, and colors are chosen to make the information graphic suitable for the given audience.

Based on this principle, how could a corresponding information graphic for the elderly be designed?

Simplicity as a Design Principle: Exhibition in the Red Dot Design Museum

The Red Dot Design Museum in Essen currently has a special exhibition on Simplicity as a Design Principle (until 06.03.2020). In this article I summarize the main messages of this exhibition.

The Red Dot Design Museum’s ongoing permanent exhibition shows products that have been awarded the prestigious Red Dot Design Award. Appointed jurors gather once a year to grant this award to submitted products. The recognition tends to be given to simple elegant designs. But outward aethetics are not the only considered criteria. The considered four qualities of good design are the qualities of function, seduction, use, and responsibility.

The current small special exhibition puts a spotlight on simplicity in product design. The exhibition is structured into several sections each of which is titled with a statement in the form of „Simplicity is ….“. A short text elaborates on each such aspect. Each aspect is demonstrated with one specific simple product, usually presented together with an older elaborate product. Several similar simple products of the same type are also exhibited.

Here a summary of the main points, restructured from my point of view:

The introductory text of the exhibition brochure sees simplicity in design as a result of the industrialisation. In the 18th century the upper and middle classes favored heavily ornamented products in Baroque and Rococo style, imitating the lifestyle of the artistocracy. Such products could not be industrially mass produced, however. So when mass production took off in the late 18th and early 19th century, much simpler and cheaper products were produced and became popular (note: influencing the popular taste to prefer simpler products was an agenda of the Deutscher Werkbund). Major figures that played a role in this transitional period were the industrial designer Peter Behrens, and the architect Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school in 1919.

The exhibition makes the following key statements:

Simplicity is modern: the contemporary aesthetic of simplicity was developed in the art epoch of modernism. This aspect is demonstrated by the Red and Blue chair, designed by Gerrit Rietveld in the 1920s (Photo source: Wikimedia commons: Ellywa). Rietveld was an adherent of the dutch De Stijl movement which strongly influenced the German Bauhaus.

Simplicity is puristic: the aesthetic of simplicity omits ornaments. This point is demonstrated with the Mono A cutlery, designed by Peter Raacke in 1959 (photo source: Mono).

Simplicity is based on geometry: simple products are often designed in geometric shapes. This principle is exemplified by three stools in a circle shape (Stool 60 by Alvar Aalto, 1933), triangular shape (Tibalt by Matthias Scherzinger, 2017), and rectangular shape (Ulm Stool by Max Bill, 1954).

Simplicity is democratic: simple products tend to be low priced and thus afforable for everyone. The Fiat Nova 500 is shown as an example of this principle. The very compact car with a length of 2,97 m and a width of 1,32 m had only the most basic technical features. With its low purchase price it was possible for many people to fulfill their dream of their own car.

Simplicity is the right balance: simple products achieve the right balance between too many and not enough features. The historic draisine is shown to demonstrate this point. Without gears, brakes, or lighting it is simpler than today’s bicycle. But it is too uncomfortable, too unsafe, too simple. On the other extreme today’s bicycles can be technically highly complex. A good balance is achieved by contemporay simple bicyle designs that reduce the technical complexity (example shown below: Schindelhauer Bike by Stephan Zehren and Jörg Schindelhauer).

Simplicity is easy to use: simple products are self-explanatory and need no instructions for use. This aspect is demonstrated with contemporary coffee machines ( photo below on the right: Lumero by Ernst Köhler for WMF, 2019, a more complex machine on the left: Europiccola, inhouse design for La Pavioni, 1950). These allow the user to easily make coffee of constant high quality with the press of a button.

Simplicity is innovative: the development of simple products can drive innovation. This aspects is demonstrated with the Thonet No. 4 chair, designed by Michael Thonet in 1859. Thonet perfected the technique of bending solid wood. This allowed to produce stable chairs with muss less material. Each Thonet No. 4 chair was dissassembled into six parts which were shipped all over to world in a space-saving manner.

Simplicity is driven by new technologies: technological advancements allow to design simpler products. LED table lights demonstrated this. Because LED lights emit no heat, lamps do not need big lampshades for ventilation and heat isolation any more. Also, because LED lights are much lighter and smaller, table lamps don’t need heavy pedestals any more.

Simplicity is not simple: simple products can hide complexity under a simple exterior. This point is demonstrated with multifunctional flatscreen TVs. Though they are much slimmer and outwardly simpler than the older cathode ray tube TVs, they contain many more functionalities.

The exhibition provides some interesting perspectives on simplicity in design. As someone who has read and thought a lot about this topic, I have a few objections, however. The exhibition focuses on simplicity as a product aesthetic for the German / European upper and middle class. No mention is made that Asian, notably Japanese, art and design had developed an aesthetic of simplicity centuries before western modernism. A point that would also deserve some attention is how simplicity and the principle of „form follows function“ has always been present in western peasant and craftsman culture, as can for example be seen in farming and handicraft tools.

For further information on the exhibition, you can download the nicely designed brochure, containing both the German and English text. The exhibit contained little text beyond that given in the brochure.

Calender 2020: Seasonal flower illustrations by Pierre-Joseph Redouté

As in the two previous years, I again designed a calender for 2020. The calender shows seasonal flower illustrations by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759 –1840), who is considered one of the greatest botanical illustrators of all time.

The calender is freely downloadable as a pdf file and printable (for private use) on standard DIN A4 paper. It is available in three versions:

A good way of hanging the printed pages with standard office equipment is to use a (small white) binder clip (see example picture below). Magnets and pins also work of course. It’s also possible to only print indvidual pages out as they are needed over the year.

Here a preview of all calender pages:

And here an impression of how it looks with a binder clip on the wall:

For those who are interested, here some further background information on the making of this calender. With this design I continue to explore aesthetics I had already taken up in my previous calender designs. For 2018 I had created a calender combining (not very functional) Swiss-inspired typography and Japanese-inspired nature photography. For 2019 I had designed a minimalist functional calender inspired by Bauhaus watches. With the new 2020 design I tried to create a minimalist calender that was both functional and served decorative purposes. It combines Bauhaus/Swiss-inspired typography with natural aesthetics.

Normally I don’t enjoy looking at flowers very much, because in Europe they tend to be presented in the form of lush colorful bouquets and flowerbeds. But I do like it when singular or only few flowers are shown. In this presentation form the beauty does not only lie in the colorful blossoms, but in the entire form of the plant with blossoms, leaves, and stems. This way of presenting flowers can also be seen in the flower arrangements of Japanese Ikebana, and similarly in Japanese Bonsai. Similarly, the botanical illustrations of Pierre-Joseph Redouté show plants in a very lifelike, organically composed way.

For each month an illustration of a flower was selected that (approximately) blooms in that month. I didn’t want to select the „most beautiful“ plants, but those typically seen in gardens, fields, and woods in Germany over the year. Many of Redoutés illustrations are more beautiful than the subset I selected here. I had to make some trade-offs because I could not find all flowers I had on my initial list, especially the rarer fall and winter flowers.

The largest part of illustrations I found via the site Plantillustrations.org. The site links to scanned books from where I downloaded the individual pages. Getting the yellowed, faded and spotted images into a clean shape turned out to be more time-consuming than I thought. This making-of article by Nicolas Rougeaux contains some helpful tips on restoring old botanical illustrations. I ended up spending many hours with gimp, making heavy use of the fuzzy select (magic wand) tool, eraser, masking, automatic white correction and further color correction tools. The results are far from perfect but I’m still proud that my restored images look more balanced than what is commonly available on the internet (compare these Redouté images on rawpixel for example).

In the form of small selfmade icons (matching the „o“ in the used font), I added information on lunar and sun phases, which nicely fits the natural and seasonal theme. The font used is the open source font Spartan MB by Matt Bailey. Layouting was done with the open source desktop publishing software Scribus.

What board games teach about designing engaging data visualizations

An article I wrote about data visualization and board games was published in Nightingale, the journal of the Data Visualization Society.

In the article I summarize my thoughts from a visit to the biggest tradefair for board games in the world, the Spiel (Internationale Spieletage) in Essen. Board game designers are really good at making representations of information and data engaging, fun and easily accessible. Many of the used principles can equally be used for data visualizationa:

  • Using easily readable encodings of data
  • Using overarching plots and metaphors
  • Making the graphic design fit the topic
  • Representing the data in physcial form (data physicalization).

The full article is available here, or click on the picture below: What board games teach us about data visualization.

What defines simple and minimalist design?

In my own designs and those of others I admire, I keep gravitating towards the simple and minimalist. From my own experience I can say that such designs are rarely the result of a simple design process. Taking a straightforward approach usually results in a blunt and uninspired design. A lot of time and effort is required to get the details of a simple design just right in order to achieve a balanced, convincing result. Therefore I am always interested in understanding underlying principles of simplicity in design.

Traditional Japanese design I have been admiring for a long time. During this year, marking the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus, I learned quite a lot new aspects about Bauhaus design (see my long blog article on characteristics of Bauhaus design). The design philosophies of these two movements are in many ways oppositional, with Japanese design favoring the natural and Bauhaus design favoring the technical and constructed. I asked myself: „How can Japanese design and Bauhaus design, which use oppositional design elements, both appear simple and minimalistic?“.

The infographic below answers this question. The minimalist design movements of Japanese design, Scandinavian design, Brutalist architecture, and Bauhaus designer are characterized by their typical use of forms, colors, and textures. This demonstrates that simplicity and minimalism are not tied to any specific design elements. Rather, a simple design results from the limitation to a small coherent set of elements.

Taking a look at the examples shown on my portfolio page, it becomes clear that I followed the approach of achieving a minimalist effect by using a reduced palette of design elements in most of my designs. Many of my previous blog posts can also be reinterpreted as treating specific simple and minimalist design themes:

There is no denying however that there are specific design elements more often associated with simple (graphic) design. Such simple and minimalis clichés that come to mind are:

  • Use of only black, white and gray colors, possibly with a few highlights in red
  • Use of muted brown colors
  • Black and white photography
  • Flat graphics, possibly contourless
  • Use of geometric sans serif fonts

The photo below shows an example that uses such typical design elements to great effect. The shown page is from the book Den Zweiten Weltkrieg verstehen (English edition: World War II: Infographics) illustrated by Nicolas Guillerat, authored by Jean Lopez, Nicolas Aubin, Vincent Bernard, published by dtv in 2019. The infographics are designed in a flat style reminiscent of Isotype, with a muted color palette. The pages are filled very densely with information, so it can be a matter of debate wether this is a good example of simplicity.

Very interesting results come from using elements not typically associated with simplicity. This results is a simple, yet also unusual and interesting composition. This is an approach I have only used sparsely in my work up to now. Examples are the use of bright orange color in this animation of a critical mass bicycle tour, glowing green in this animation on the same topic, and orange color for this animated chart in dot matrix style.

Below are shown two good examples I recently came across. These posters for the SOS Brutalismus exhibition in Bochum (until 24.11.19, very much worth seeing), are printed in black on bright neon orange, yellow, and green (not shown) paper. The posters were designed by Rahlwes.Pietz.

Another example is the book/comic Shakespeare ohne Worte (shakespeare without words) by Frank Flöthmann, published by DuMont in 2016. The illustrations are made up of circle shapes. The color palette is black, white, green, and reflective shimmering gold.

Besides the use of a reduced palette of design elements, the layout of the elements also plays a role. Simplicity in a layout can be achieved by reducing content and leaving more whitespace, using a simple transparent structure, and including a hierachy with three to five layers based on fractal aesthetics. Simplicity by layout is a topic that warrants a further article.

Ligne Claire Graphic Style

Currently I’m trying to extend my skillset to also be able to construct basic infographics and illustrations from scratch. One of my preferred graphic styles for clear minimalist infographics and illustrations is the ligne clear („clear line“) style. The style is notably associated with „Adventures of Tintin“ comics by Hergé (Georges Remi).

Doing some research on the topic I found that there are many other artists besides Hergé who produced and still are producing beautiful work in the ligne claire style. I decided to summarize the main findings or my research as an infographic, or rather, a digital poster. You can see the result below (you might have to open the graphic in a new tab to read the small text.)

The copyrights of the images lie with the referenced authors and publishers. The images are shown here for reviewing and educational purposes only.

One main finding of my research was that Hergé owed a lot to his precursors and collaborators. Especially Edgar P. Jacobs played a major role in introducing realistic props and backgrounds in the Tintin series. He went on to work on his own series: Blake and Mortimer. When Edgar P. Jacobs was unable to continue the work on this series, many other renowned ligne claire artists drew individual volumes: Bob de Moor, Ted Benoît, André Juillard, Antoine Aubin and others. Personally I’m quite fond of the artwork Peter van Dongen did for the most recent volumes.

The shown information is mainly based on these sources:

Hergé’s working method can be seen here:

The working method of E. P. Jacobs was quite similar and is shown here:

I constructed the graphic using my preferred open source vector editing software Inkscape. This turned out to not be the best tool for the job. Layouting is a lot more comfortable in Scribus, the usual open-source desktop publishing software of my choice. I had some difficulties coming up with a balanced layout for the content. Finally, I settled on this structure reminiscient of a triptych. The structure makes sense here, grouping everything around the pivotal work of Hergé. The form (together with the vintage paper-colored background) does however undermine my initial intention of drawing attention to other ligne claire artists beyond Hergé and the timelessness of the ligne claire style.

Pictograms of people: depicting individuals and groups

The infographic below shows a comparison of the pictograms of contemporay artist Julian Opie, and graphic designers Rudolf Modley and Gerd Arntz. While Arntz and Modley depicted members of specific groups (professions, socio-economic groups), Opie uses a very similar design language to depict individuals.

I created this infographic after visiting the exhibition Sculpture 21st: Julian Opie at the Lehmbruck Museum Duisburg. Here’s a photo of the exhibition space from outside the building. The exhibition consisted of several sculptures and an animated LED screen.

Julian Opie is a contemporary british artist. He is best known for portraits in a simplified cartoon-like style. He also produces paintings, sculptures, and animations of walking figures in a pictographic style. The genius of Julian Opie is that he uses a simplified, pictographic design language to portrait individuals with their characteristic features. A large number of his works can be seen on Julian Opies’s website. The walking figures for the graphic was extracted from the painting City Walkers, 2018, a rare example of a work in black and white.

German artist Gerd Arntz designed pictograms for Isotype infographics in the 1920s and 30s. The work was under the direction of Otto Neurath and in collabation with Marie Neurath at the social and economic museum in Vienna. Examples of Arntz’s work can notable be found in the Gerd Arntz Web Archive.

Rudolf Modley had already worked on pictograms with Otto Neurath in the 1920s. When he emmigrated to the USA in the 1930s, he founded Pictural Statistics Incorporated and developed his own Isotype-style pictograms.

Contemporary Designer John Caserta wrote a short tutorial on how to create pictograms in this style from photographs. There is also a selection of resulting pictograms showing contemporary activities available.

In Isotype statistical infographics, pictograms of people usually stand for numbers of people of a specific group. For instance one pictogram of a soldier would stand for 1 million soldiers. The pictograms thus show the clothing and tools characteristic for the depicted profession or socio-economic group. The infographic by Rudolf Modley depicts workers in the agricultural and in other sectors (picture source: wikimedia commons).

Pictograms of people in contemporary signage tend to be even more abstract, depicting even more general groups. For instance athletes of a sport in the olympic pictograms, men and women on toilet signs, or simple humans (walking) on traffic signs.

The Evolution of German Traffic Signs

The infographic below shows the evolution of German traffic signs from realistic contour drawing to abstract pictograms. The principle is demonstrated using selected signs. The signs introduced in 1992 are those still in use today.

During bicycle trips in remote areas I often see old traffic signs which to me have a nostalgic look. Especially old signs for foot- and bicyclepaths are often still in place:

Comparing signs of the previous generation to those installed today, two main changes can be identified. The signs have been adapted to changing fashion (men wearing hats etc.) and changing technology (forms of trains, cars, motorcycles etc.). There is also a change in style, with the modern signs looking more abstract and geometric. Doing some research on the topic I found that these trends can be traced back still one generation of signs further, back to those signs first introduced in post-war Germany in the years 1953 – 56. The infographic I prepared illustrates this point.

For company logos it is known that they tend to become more abstract over time. It seems that with every overhaul of a logo, there is a tendency to drop nonessential elements. The logo is thus whittled to perfection over time. Modern design language favors stylized geometric logos over realistic ornamental ones, so there is tendency of designers to make changes in this direction. As an example, both the logomark and logotype of the company Pelikan, a German manufacturer of office equipment, shows such a development. The logomark reached an abstract form quite early, in 1937 (picture Source: Pelikan).

Here another example: the logo of the company Royal Dutch Shell (picture source: here).

In the case of German traffic signs another major influence might have been the pictograms developed by Otl Aicher for the summer olympics in Munich in 1972. These stylized human figures had a big impact on subsequent pictograms showing people. This is especially noticeable when comparing the figure shown in the crosswalk sign of 1992 (see above) to those designed by Otl Aicher in 1972 (picture source: desingtagebuch.de).

Though realistic contour drawings are currently seldomly used for functional signs and pictograms they are still in use in other settings. Especially contours of athletes can often be seen, for instance in the Bundesliga logo (German national football league), National Basketball Association (NBA) logo in the USA, and Major League Baseball logo in the USA. The riverway sign/logo below show an assemblance of contours of persons performing different activities.

What is Bauhaus Design?

Ever since I visited the Bauhaus archive and museum in Berlin many years ago, I am a fan of Bauhaus design. However, my understanding of what „Bauhaus design“ actually is was rather vague. In the last months I had the opportunity to visit many further exhibitions which are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919. These exhibitions and reading up on the topic have lead me to a deeper understanding about what is specific about Bauhaus design. In this article I will explain the historic background, typical characteristics of Bauhaus architecture, product design and graphic design. I will also discuss reasons for why the Bauhaus became one of the most influential design schools of the 20th century.

The Bauhaus was a German design school, active from 1919 to 1933 subsequently in the cities Weimar (1919 – 1925), Dessau (1925 – 1932), and Berlin (1932 – 1933). The relocations and final closing of the school were due to pressure from the rising Nazi party, who were opposed to the liberal views and the internationality of staff and students at the school. At the Bauhaus many contemporary trends in art, design, and architecture were taken up, amalgamated and further developed into what would become modern design.

At different times, different personalities were active at the Bauhaus. This makes it difficult to talk about it as one homogenous school of thought on design. At least four phases can be identified with different emphases:

1919 – 1922: Expressionist and handicraft phase: Architect Walter Gropius founded the school in Weimar with the aim of teaching all applied art disciplines required for furnishing buildings („Bau“ means building, „-haus“ means house). In contrast to academic art schools of that time, students were educated in handicrafts in workshops. The concept of artist-craftsmen/artisans had previously already been advocated by the Arts and Crafts Movement in England. Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten introduced and lead the seminal „Vorkurs“ (preliminary course) in which students learned to design with colors and materials in a playful experimental way. The work of students followed the aesthestic of expressionism, the dominant art movement in Germany at that time.

1923 – 1928: Constructivist geometric phase: When Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy took over the Vorkurs (together with Josef Albers), he introduced concepts from Russian Constructivism. Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg gave lectures at the Bauhaus in which he introduced the De Stijl art movement. The Bauhaus started to cooperate with companies that industrially produced prototypes developed in the workshops. The combination of these three influences resulted in the design style which is most associated with the Bauhaus today.

1928 – 1930: Industrial design for the people phase: Architect Hannes Meyer was appointed second director of the Bauhaus in Dessau. He criticized the dogmatic following of the prevailing Bauhaus style, and advocated for more functionality. Holding socialist views, he also criticized that the Bauhaus up to that time had mainly designed luxury products for the rich. During that time the most profitable cooperations between the Bauhaus and companies took place, notably with the company Rasch for the Bauhaus wallpaper.

1930 – 1933: Architectural phase: When the third Bauhaus director Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, again an architect by profession, took over, he reformed the Bauhaus into an architecture school.

As already explained, the second of these four phases is the one for which Bauhaus design is most known today. My further discussion will focus on this phase, with many aspects also being relevant for the more functional third phase. Specific design characterstics can be noted for architecture, product design, and graphic design. Paintings associated with the Bauhaus tend to have individual abstract and expressionist styles of the corresponding artists (namely Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, all of them teachers a the school). Other art genres such as Bauhaus textile design and Bauhaus dance are not considered here.

All three Bauhaus directors Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were architects by profession. Strangely the Bauhaus only started giving courses on architecture in 1927 when Gropius appointed Meyer for this function. During their time as directors they were given several building commissions. Usually the Bauhaus workshops were then involved in furnishing the buildings.

Typical characteristics of the designed houses are:

  • The buildings are made up of cuboids with flat roofs.
  • Exterior and often also interior walls are colored white.
  • There are no ornamental elements. This property of modern architecture had notably been advocated by Austrian architect Adolf Loos in his 1910 lecture Ornament and Crime.
  • The buildings often have large window fronts.
  • The buildings were ususally designed to include a contemporary high standard of sanitary and heating installations.

As an example, the photo below shows the Meisterhaus Kandinsky/Klee in Dessau, 1925 by Walter Gropius. The building exhibits all characteristics listed above. It was one of several buildings that Gropius designed for senior staff of the Bauhaus in Dessau. (Photo source: Thomas Wolf / Wüstenrot Stiftung)

Other examples of typical Bauhaus architecture are:

  • Haus am Horn in Weimar, 1923, designed by Bauhaus student Georg Muche. The house and its interior design served as a first public demonstration of Bauhaus work.
  • Bauhaus Dessau, 1925, by Walter Gropius. The building was designed to accomodate the school as it moved to Dessau.
  • The White City in Tel Aviv, 1930s, by diverse architects. These 4000 buildings were designed by Jewish former Bauhaus students who fled from the rise of the Nazis to Israel.

Bauhaus style architecture would later be seen as a part of International Style architecture. All three Bauhaus directors were featured in the defining 1932 exhibiton at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York: Modern Architecture: International Exhibition and the influential associated book/catalogue.

As in architecture, products designed at the Bauhaus had a specific style and influenced product design thereafter. Typical characteristics of the designed products are:

  • Objects are assembled from basic shapes such as spheres, cubes, cones etc. Students were encouraged to rethink products starting from their basic functionality. This lead to geometric, minimalist designs that broke with the traditional forms of such products. The principle of geometric construction was adapted from Russian Constructivism.
  • Often only a basic color palette is used, consisting of the primary colors red, blue, and yellow and the achromatic colors white, grey, and black. This color scheme was adopted from the De Stijl art movement were it was intended to be universal i.e. objective and international.
  • Designed products were intended to be industrially mass produced. This resulted in simple products without ornamental elements. Industrial materials, namely metal and glass, were used in new ways. The demand for the development of product designs appropriate for industrial manufacturng had previously been made by the Deutscher Werkbund, of which Walter Gropius was also a member.

The photo below shows a typical Bauhaus product, the Table lamp WG24, 1924, by Wilhelm Wagenfeld. It notably shows the construction from geometric elements and the use of the industrial materials metal and glass. (Photo source: Tecnolumen)

The photo below shows a cradle designed by Peter Kehler in 1922. It shows the construction from geometric elements and the use of primary colors. (Photo Source: Klassik Stiftung Weimar).

Other typical product designs of the Bauhaus are:

  • Chess pieces, 1924, by Josef Hartwig. Showing geometric construction. Black and natural wood are the only colors.
  • Tea Infuser, 1924, by Marianne Brandt. Showing geometric construction and new use of metal. Black is used as the only color
  • Wassily Chair (model B3), 1925, by Marcel Breuer. Showing geometric construction and innovative use of steel pipes. Black is used as the only color.

Similar principles as in architecture and product design were also applied in graphic design. Typical characteristics of Bauhaus graphic design products are:

  • Sans serif fonts and geometric sans serif fonts were used, notably Schelter & Giesecke (breite halbfette) Grotesk and in later years Futura (1927 by Paul Renner, not himself active at the Bauhaus). Diverse bespoke headline fonts were designed. These were typically geometrically constructed. Notable examples are Herbert Bayers’s draft for an universal font (1925), based on a circle shape, and Josef Albers stencil font Schablonierschrift (realized together with Paul Renner as Futura Black) and the modular Kombinationsschrift (1928).
  • Efforts were made in standardization, both in standardization of fonts as well as in paper formats according to DIN (Deutsches Insitut für Normung) specifications.
  • Only small case letters were used in texts. This was introduced at the Bauhaus in 1925.
  • Few ornamental non-textual elements were used, with the exception of horizontal and vertical bars.
  • Often red was used as the only color with otherwise black on white content.
  • Black and white photography was used instead of previously used printed graphics. Photographs were usually held in an objective tone. This documentary style called Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) was introduced at the Bauhaus by Lucia Moholy, and later perfected outside the Bauhaus notably by Albert Renger-Patzsch. A contrasting type of photography at the Bauhaus was Neues Sehen (new seeing), which often took on unusual perspectives in an experimental way. This type of photography was favored by Lázló Moholy-Nagy.

Moholy-Nagy’s style of graphic design was influenced notably by constructivist El Lissitzky and dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Outside the Bauhaus, this graphic style was further refined by Jan Tschichold and became known as Neue Typografie (new typography) or Elementare Typografie (elementary typography). Nazi propaganda took up some of the elements of this style notably in propaganda posters. Swiss typographers took up many elements in the 1950s into Swiss Style typography.

The picture below shows Herbert Bayer’s design for an universal font. The font consists only of small case letters. Such geometric fonts based on a circle shape are most associated with the Bauhaus today.

The picture below shows a typical example of Bauhaus graphic design, an advertisement brochure for the city of Dessau by Joost Schmidt, 1926.

Other typical examples of Bauhaus graphic design are:

Some of the Bauhaus designs listed above still look great from today’s perspective. However, the dogmatically geometric construction of some designs make them seem somewhat clunky and unergonomic today.

The style of Bauhaus design influenced following generations of designers. The architectural style was incorporated into International Style architecture. Product designs influenced modern, minimalist, industrially produced goods. Examples coming to mind are electric appliances by Braun which later in turn influenced Steve Jobs at Apple, or scandinavian design such as furniture by Ikea. Typographic and graphic design principles of that time were later taken up notably by Swiss Style graphic design.

Ironically one of the reasons why the school was so influential was it’s closure in 1933 under pressure from the rising Nazi party. Staff and students were then dissipated all over the world. Foreigners returned to their home countries. Jewish students fled to Israel. Many former Bauhaus teachers emmigrated to the USA. From 1933 on Josef and Anni Albers, later also Walter Gropius, and other former Bauhaus teachers taught at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Albers transferred the teaching methods of the Bauhaus with its Vorkurs. In 1937 Lázló Moholoy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Only in 1953 did a design school in the tradition of the Bauhaus reopen in Germany, the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. Among the founders was the former Bauhaus student Max Bill.

Former director Walter Gropius later worked on spreading the myth of the Bauhaus. Due to German Bauhaus design being dissociated from Nazi reign 1933 – 1945 and World War II, it was recognized as a German design tradition both in post-war Germany as well as abroad.

Designing a Basic Corporate Design for Freelance Work

Having taken care of the main bureaucracy involved in starting to work as a freelancer, and after having set up my homepage, a further task on my to-do list was to develop a basic corporate design. Many freelancers do not use an explicit corporate design. A freelancer is himself his brand. And in the case of designers the style of their work makes up the largest part of their brand. Still, in my case I see the use of a coherent corporate design as a further possibility to demonstrate my basic design philosophy (more engineering than art) and sense of style (simplicity, minimalism).

Simply put, a corporate design is a set of graphic design style rules that are applied to all corporate documents in order to achieve a consistent appearance. In my case I wanted some basic design elements I could apply to my business card, invoices, letters, homepage, and social media profiles. A basic corporate design is made up of:

  • Business name
  • Logo
  • Colors or a color palette
  • Fonts

Corporate design guidelines of big companies can be further detailed, also speciyfing typesetting, icons, and many other aspects. Examples of such corporate design manuals can be found here.

Here is the final result of my corporate design as manifested in my business card:

This is how the business card and and an invoice document look printed:

The business name was the first thing I decided. When registering as a freelancer in Germany it is required to state a company name, which must include the last name of the person. After mulling over this a bit I decided on a straightforward „Data Visualization Dr. J. Wirges“. Adding the doctoral title „Dr.“ to the name is common in Germany, where the title is held in high regard. Depending on the context I’ll also spell the first name out, as in the business card above. I often find it preposterous when people give fancy names to their one-person businesses.

The visual design process I started with searching for fonts to use. Because I mainly work with open source tools, I also wanted my fonts to be open source. Several such fonts are listed on this wikipedia page. The Font library lists many such fonts. The best overall source source for open source fonts seems to be Google fonts.

I like Microsoft’s Segoe UI font, a very clear and clean font designed for user interfaces, and looked for something in this direction. I decided on Sans Source Pro as the main text font to use. It is a nicely clear and balanced font, well suitable for use on maps and information graphics as well as longer text (the text of this blog is set in this font). It was important to me that it comes in a wide range of weights from extra-light to black in both regular and italic.

As a headline font I wanted one that was a bit more noticeable, but still minimalist and geometric. Being a fan of Paul Renners Futura, a geometric font similar to Bauhaus fonts, I looked for open source fonts in this direction. An easily recognizable feature of such fonts ist the small „a“ as a full oval. Because letters a, b, d, g, o, p, q and I, i,L, l, 1, ! look so similar in such fonts there are in my opinion not well readable as long text. (Surprisingly the biggest German tabloid newspaper Bild uses such as font for printed text.) The similar Renner and looks a bit too edgy (i.e. too much like the outdated Futura itself ?) to me. I decided to use Muli, also coming in a wide range of weights (alternative: Spartan, narrower alternative: Universalis, alternatives in fewer weights: Questrial, Didact Gothic, Glacial Indifference, similar but uneven line widths: Poppins). A disadvantage of combining two such clear and minimalist fonts is that there is only little visual contrast between them.

Designing the logo required several iterations. I began by collecting ideas via brainstorming, looking for images to key concepts such as „data visualization“, „data“, „visualization“, „Dr.“ „Johannes Wirges“ etc. These ideas I first sketched out on paper. With the more promising ideas I then experimented as vector graphics in Inkscape. I’ve noticed that I’m much better at selecting the most appealing design among a selection, or iteratively seeing what is wrong with an existing design, than at clearly stating how a design should look. In order to leverage such „passive design skills“ I created many variants of a design which I then placed side by side on a big vector graphics canvas. The image below shows such a canvas with the semi-final logo in the upper right.

The design process resulted in three milestone logo designs which I successively tested with friends, former colleagues, and family members. These milestones are shown below.

The first logo means to show a bar chart made up of vertical bars and horizontal background lines. The feedback I got for this logo is that it looks nicely minimalist and professional, and the link to data visualization is obvious, however it has little recognition value. Thus I started again from scratch.

The second logo means to show two people discussing about a data visualization. The circles/bubbles here can stand for both a statistical data visualization as a bubble chart or a geographic data visualization as a proportional symbol map. The only five bubbles look like somewhat complicated data because the bubbles come in three sizes (four small, one medium large, one large) and are arranged in a wave shape. Each person talks about the patterns he sees in the visualization, represented as blue and red circles. This image nicely reflects my philosophy of data visualization. I see it mainly as a means to support communication. In analytical applications data visualizations serve as the basis for discussions among experts about what patterns they see in the data. In presentations such visualization help to communicate findings and hypotheses to an audience.

The feedback I got for this (unexplained) design was much better concerning recognition/originality, however, the link to data visualization was not as obvious as in the previous logo. A fellow designer noted that I could work more with surfaces and less with contours. I agreed to this point. In logo design, as well as in maps, charts, and infographics (and also user interfaces, see flat design) the current trend is to mainly use surfaces free of contours. Thus I designed the third and final version of the logo.

When selecting colors, I like to start with named colors. A named color often has its background in a specific material, pigment, dye or historic use. The specific RGB specification may vary by source. Wikipeda has a nice list of named colors sorted by shade. The reduced palette of web colors can also be a good starting point. The Encycolorpedia is a good ressource when searching for colors by name or similar colors. Being a fan of traditional japanese design, I also like to take up the natural dye colors of traditional colors of Japan.

For this logo I wanted shades of blue and red that are slightly „off“ and muted. „Warm“ red and „cool“ blue are obvious choices when visualizing any kind of dualism. For blue I settled on cerulean blue (#2A52BE), reminiscent of a dark blue sky. For red I mixed an unnamed orangish red (#E14040), initally starting from fire brick (#B22222). The third neutral color used here is grey, of course.

I also wanted versions of the logo in greyscale and in black and white. I prepared these making slight adjustments to the original. In logo design it is often recommeded to start in greyscale or black and white and only add colors later. This puts emphasis on basic forms in the first design steps and leaves the possbility more controversial subjective selection of colors to a later step.

So that is my basic corporate design I’ll be using in the future. The specification is simple enough to write in on a post-it:

  • Business name: „Data Visualization Dr. J.(ohannes) Wirges
  • Logo: Two human figure icons with a shared speech balloon containing bubbles arranged in a wave shape. The two figures have different colors, which are also used for selected bubbles.
  • Colors: cerulean blue #2A52BE, orangish-red #E14040, and grey
  • Fonts: Source Sans Pro for text, Muli for headers

I expect to make further adjustments and refinements to this basic corporate design as time passes.

Signage in Primary Colors: Red, Blue, and Yellow

Lately I’ve been studying signs of all types, notably traffic signs. I noticed that German traffic signs use only basic color combinations of a handful of colors. The picture below shows the three most common color combinations. I estimate that about 70 percent of functional signs in Germany use these colors. The shown signs display information about hydrants, and the gas- and water network.

Red shapes and black text are displayed on a white background, black content on a yellow background, and white content on a blue background. The alternative color combinations blue and black, and yellow and white don’t work because of their low contrast. On traffic signs these colors tend to be used for specific purposes, red to indicate danger, yellow for warnings, and blue for neutral indications.

One can only speculate why other high-contrast colors combinations such as green-white, orange-black, and purple-white are seldomly used. My theory is that it is because these three colors were traditionally taught to be the primary colors for subtractive color mixing. The picture below showns the color mixing circle developed by Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten (picture source: Wikimedia). In todays printing process the colors cyan, magenta, and yellow are used to mix colors.

In art history the three primary colors were also heavily used in De Stijl abstract art which influenced the Bauhaus movement. This painting by Piet Mondrian (Composition with Red, Yellow, Bluea and Black, 1921) demonstrates this (picture source: Wikimedia).

The biggest German tabloid newspaper Bild traditionally had a title page in red, black and white. This highly effective color combination is an absolute classic in graphic design and was already used in egyptian papyrii (headings and quantities written in red) and medieval manuscripts (rubrication). In the last years the newspaper has begun also using yellow-black titles as can be seen in the picture below (Source: Bild ePaper).

Visualizing spatio-temporal data as an animation vs. as static maps: black coal mine shafts in the ruhr region

The ruhr region (Ruhrgebiet) in Germany was a center of black coal mining and the steel industry. In the last decades all black coal mines and most heavy industry sites have been shut down. Nowadays the low rents in this densely populated urban region attract startups, artists, retaurants, and immigrants. Still, the heritage of coal mining is visible everywhere. So I was keen to do a data visualization dealing with this history.

This project was done in collaboration with Peter Dodenhoff, who supplied me with the data he collected for his mapping project Zechenkarte.de. The discussions with Peter helped me to better interprete the historical trends visible in the data visualizations. Peter also wrote an article about this project which you can read here.

The animation below shows the development of black coal mining shafts in the ruhr region from 1800 until 2019. The color of the dots shows the maximal depth of each shaft over its operating time. All maps shown here were designed with QGIS and the Time Manager Plugin.

If you want to read an interpreation of these visible historical trends now, skip right down to the text. I also prepared a set of four maps which show the same data statically. The first map shows the year in which each mine shaft was dug:

The following map shows the year in which the mine shaft was shut down:

The following map shows how long each mine shaft was in operation:

The following map shows the maximal depth of each mine shaft:

The animation and the set of static maps nicely show the big historic epochs of black coal mining in the ruhr region:

  • 1800: Obervation: The animation starts in this year with only very few existing coal mining shafts. Explanation: Since the middle ages coal had already been mined in the small scale in pits and in horizontal tunnels in the Ruhr valley, not shown in the map. Deeper vertical mine shafts became possible when steam engines were used to pump the groundwater out of the shafts. The first such pump was put in operation in 1801 in Bochum by Franz Dinnendahl. Only after that did coal mining in the big scale in vertical shafts really take off.
  • 1800-1930: Observation: Mine shafts are first being mainly dug near Essen, Bochum, and Dortmund. The development then expands further north. Shafts tend to get deeper the further north they are located. Explanation: The axis Duisburg-Mühlheim-Essen-Bochum-Dortmund is the route of the Hellweg, a medieval trade route. Then and now the most populated cities lie along this axis. The need for coal strongly rose after 1800 with the introduction of steam engines in factories and of the steam locomotives for transport (in Germany since 1835). Steel manufacturing requires lots of coal, thus steel factories were built up near coal mines, also leading to higher demand. Coal mines were first dug in the south were coal lies nearer to the surface. Later mines opened further north were the coal lay deeper in the ground. Mines were shut as the coal reserves in the corresponding areas were depleted or mines became economically unviable. (Note: It is interesting that the first world war 1914 – 1918 is not detectable in the data visualization)
  • 1930: Observation: Larger sets of coal mines can be seen to shut down at once, notably south of Dortmund. Explanation: In the world economic crisis beginning in late 1929, several coal mines were shut down.
  • 1930-1960: Observation: Further coal mines are opened. Explanation: There was a high demand for coal before and during the second world war for steel and arms manufacturing. In the postwar „economic miracle“ there was also a high demand.
  • 1960-2018: Observation: Coal mines are quickly shut down. First in the south then in the north. Explanation: The coal crisis in Germany arose in the 1960s because black coal from other countries was cheaper, demand for black coal sunk, and other factors. Technologically older mine shafts in the south were shut down first, then more modern shafts in the north.
  • 2018: Observation: The last coal mine shafts in the ruhr region shut down. Explanation: These belonged to the mine Prosper-Haniel in the north of Bottrop.

This is an example of a project where I designed both an animated map and a series of static maps for a spatio-temporal dataset. After receiving the dataset I first explored the data using quickly prepared static maps. These maps I already discussed with Peter Dodenhoff. The overall historic trends could be seen in these first maps Then I designed the animation. Looking at the animation revealed several patterns on the small scale not so apparent in the static forms. Finally I redesigned the static maps to have them in a presentable form. Having the dynamic and static formats side by side allows a discussion of their benefits:

Animated maps of spatio-temporal data have the following advantages:

  • They provide entertaining content for presentations, websites, and social media. People tend to find dynamic content more interesting than static pictures.
  • Seeing a development in animated time is intuitive, i.e. is easily understood without explanation.
  • Animated maps allow to show more complex spatio-temporal patterns, for instance events of different durations recurring at the same geographic locations.
  • The visualization can usually be displayed in a single frame as a single file.
  • If the video is shown with control panel the user can skip back and forth in time (this is not possible using the simple gif file format). An animated map is a sequence of static maps each of which can be viewed on its own.

Static maps of spatio-temporal data have the following advantages:

  • All data is shown at once and can thus be better compared and analyzed. This only holds if events do not spatially overlap in the chosen visualization. (Visualization formats such as heatmaps also allow to show spatially overlapping events.)
  • Maps can be easily be prepared with standard GIS applications. The simple picture file formats can easily be used in all contexts and printed.

The above lists name more advantages for animated maps than for static ones for visualizing spatio-temporal datasets. In my opinion static maps are especially useful for analytical applications and initial data exploration. The choice of format should be based on the purpose of the visualization (entertaining, presenting vs. analyzing, exploring), the audience (general public vs. visually literate analysts), and nature of the data set (recurring spatially overlapping events vs. one-time spatially dispersed events). The ideal case obviously is to have both formats and to see what patterns can be seen in the different visualizations.

For the sake of transparency I want to add some notes on the underlying data. As already mentioned, the data was collected by Peter Dodenhoff for his project Zechenkarte.de, which shows a spatial map of mine shafts and provides additional information. For some of the mine shafts in this dataset the begin or end year of mining operations is unknown. I could not include these in the animation and also omitted them for the static maps, to get an uniform set of maps. The map below shows these mine shafts in red. The visualisations above show the 1004 mine shafts with time data out of 1168 mine shafts in the inital dataset. There is also bound to be some uncertainty in the data per se. The inital dataset probably does not include every existing mine shaft and a few entries might be incorret. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the visualization and the underlying data reflect the overall historic trends very well.

Designing for visual impact at large distances or at small sizes

I recently designed an advertising beachflag. Such classic graphic design tasks are usually not part of my work. But in this case the assignment came from my mother who sells self-produced honey, marmelade, and similar products on local markets. To my surprise I learned quite a few things about what to consider when designing for visual impact at large distances or at small sizes. I will explain these points in this article.

I prepared several design variants of the beachflag. In the picture below you see an intermediate design on the left, in comparison to the final design on the right, from up close/large and from a distance/small.

The intermediate version on the left looks better to me from up close. The handwritten script fits the theme of homemade honey and marmelade. The dark brown contours and yellowish white of the bees’s wings give the image a soft, warm touch. However, when viewed from a distance and at a small size, the elegant handwritten script quickly becomes illegible. Subtle color details are also lost. Visually the image is reduced to yellow, orange, black and white.

To account for these effects, I made several modifications in the final version. I decided to use a better readable sans-serif font that still suits the theme. Having the text run vertically normally isn’t good for readability, but in this case allows to use much bigger letters. Using only uppercase letters also makes the text better readable at a distance. I increased the contrast of the used colors, by replacing brown by black and yellowish-white by white. It would also have been warranted to simplify the image to a more abstract iconic version. I decided against it because I had previously constructed the image from a pencil drawing, and a more iconic version would probably have meant starting again from scratch. I also a added a small watermark at the bottom of the flag. In orange on the yellow background it is intended to disappear when viewed from a distance.

Below is what the beachflag printed by beachflags.com finally looked like. Creases and their shadows can be seen to reduce visibility a bit.

In a nutshell these are the things that I learned should be considered when designing for viewing at large distances or at small sizes:

  • Text: use well readable, simple non-serif fonts, use proportionally larger font sizes in comparsion to your text area, use bolder fontweights and uppercase lettering to improve readability
  • Images: reduce images to abstract icons, use only areas or widen contours
  • Colors: use only 2-3 colors with high contrast, a colorful background with neutral-colored content works better than the other way around

All of these points are fulfilled by european traffic signs which are of course designed for maximal recognizability under varying circumstances. It is an interesting coincidence that the color combination yellow-black chosen for the topic of bees and honey here, is also one of the classic high-contrast color combinations used for traffic signs. Other such color combinations with strong contrast in color and brightness are red-white-black and blue-white-black.

Additional Note 13.05.2019: I simplified the bee icon further for printing it on workwear shirts. This version is reduced to a single color and simpler surfaces. It can be seen that this version works even better for viewing at distances and at small sizes. (The shirt is shown in worn condition here.)

Creating a 3D flyover video of tour data with Google Earth Pro Desktop

The free software Google Earth Pro Desktop can be used to create flyover and flythrough videos of real-world 3D cityscapes. Timed data of a tour can be shown within the visualization. In this article I explain how I made such a video.

I realized this project in the context of my monthly mapping of the Critical Mass Essen bicycle tour. At critical mass events large numbers of bicyclist drive through a city as a convoy in a random fashion. This serves to create awareness for cycling as an environmental friendly, healthy, and economic mode of transport.

The window below shows the 2-minute mp4 video I made, embedded via my channel on Youtube.

This is how I created the video. First, I logged the tour with the open source GPSLogger app as a KML and CSV file. The KML track file, containing waypoints and corresponding timestamps, can be directly loaded and visualized in Google Earth. However, I was not happy about the quality of the logged data, which contained lots of jitters. It turned out that KML track files cannot be edited directly in Google Earth, QGIS, or similar programs. So what I ended up doing is loading the CSV file with coordinates and timestamps into QGIS, editing the points and saving the result again as a CSV file. I wrote a Python script that then converted the CSV file into a KML track file.

In Google Earth Pro Desktop I then opened the KML track file (File -> Open). I adjusted the basic visualisation of the track (right click on track -> Properties -> Style, Color), turning the color to blue (for the bluescreen video editing technique see below), widening the line, and reducing the sizes of symbology and labels to 0.0 in order to show only the line.

In order to create a video the KML track must be turned into a Google Earth tour. The parameters for how tours are displayed can be adjusted in Tools -> Options -> Tours. There are several tradeoffs when setting these paramters, so this takes some iterative experimenting. In my case I set the speed to 45 fold real time, in order to have a final video of about 2 minutes. I settled on a camera distance of 800 m. This results in a relaxed viewing speed, while still showing enough ground details. As a camere angle I settled on a somewhat high 30 degrees. This angle still shows off the 3D buildings, while keeping the number of buildings that have to be loaded to an acceptable level (otherwiese I would see glitches due to loading buildings). I set the time between keyframes to 5 seconds. This nicely keeps the track in focus while smoothing out the stops that the track made at red lights.

A tour with the given settings can then be played by selecting the track, and clicking on the play tour icon (connected dots) below the list. Video play controls are then shown. To save the current tour click on the save icon (disk) at the right of the video controls.

With the saved Google tour you can then create a video. Close the video play controls. Go to Tools -> Movie Maker, select your saved tour, and click create video. Here again some iteative experimenting is necessary to get the desired results. I settled on a custom video size of 854 x 280 (corresponds to youtube standard 480p size with 16:9 ratio), 30 frames per second, high quality picture quality, and MP4 file format.

My standard business laptop and medium speed internet connection did not always seem to render the results perfectly. Thus I tweaked the 3D display options in Tools -> Options -> 3D View. I shut of the anisotrope filtering, which plays no role at steep camera angles and set antialiasing to high (option availabe only for OpenGL). I also reduced the texture color to 16 bit because I was going to reduce the image to greyscale anyway (see below).

The recorded MP4 file I then opened in the open source video editing software Shotcut. I added the same file as two layers. The lower layer I colored to red (filter: color correction). For the upper layer I used a chroma key filter (i.e. bluescreen/greescreen). This turned the blue line in the upper layer transparent and let the lower layer shine trought at these points. The rest of the upper layer I then turned monochrome using the saturation, contrast, and brightness filters. The caption in the upper left, I added with the text filter. The resulting video I saved as mp4 and a short extract as the gif file shown above.

In conlusion I would say that Google Earth is a good tool for creating simulated photorealistic drone and aerial videos which can then be further processed. Creating such a video from a KML track file is a matter of minutes, but getting a good result out of the process requires a lot of tweaking of the parameters.


The 50 cent designer bag

The supermarket chain Aldi Nord replaced it’s one-way plastic bag by a more durable version in february 2019. I bought one myself and am quite fond of the design. It is simple yet refined enough to be interesting. The picture below shows the side without the Aldi Nord Logo.

For me the look invokes associations with a cool day at the sea, with the stripes reminiscent of the classic navy striped shirt. The color combination white and blue is one of the absolute classics in graphic design and can be traced back to islamic and chinese pottery. Nowadays the high contrast color combination of white lines on a blue background is used on many European traffic and street signs.

Beyond that there is a lot more to this bag than meets the eye. Aldi Nord commissioned the German artist Günter Fruhtrunk to design the bag in 1970. Like most designs seemingly original and retro it has slightly been altered over time, with a change of the Aldi Nord Logo and a change of format. Fruhtrunk was an abstract geometric artist who has by now largely been forgotten by the German public. I just had the rare opportunity to see some of his prints and paintings at an exhibition in Bochum (until 17.03.2019). Many of his works are made up of very precisley drawn stripes in bright contrasting colors.

His work can also be classified as op art (optical art). An effect seen in many paintings are thin blue borderlines of different widths. These blurr the edges when seen at a distance and lead to a perceived 3D effect. The picture below, a detail of the painting above, demonstrates this.

Günter Fruhtrunk was quite succesful in the 1960s and 70s. He exhibited his works both at the Documenta IV and the Venice Biennale in 1968. His abstract, anonymous and internationally comprehensive style was well suited to represent post-war Germany. Probably the main reasons why he is largely unknown today is that the commited suicide in 1982. He suffered from lifelong pain due to his war injuries and depression.

It is a commonly known psychological effect that knowledge about things increases their perceived value. So the next time you go shopping or to the laundromat, you could simply leave your IKEA Frakta bag at home and use your Aldi Nord bag instead. After having read this article you will then know that you are holding a designer bag of the forgotten German artist Günter Fruhtrunk that you got as an incredible bargain.

Addendum: Two products sold at Aldi Nord also take up the design of Günter Fruhtrunk’s shopping bag: sugar and matches (see photo below). The front- and backside of the oversized matchbox is shown. The matches are only for sale during the christmas season.

Günter Fruhtrunk's shopping bag design taken up for sugar and matches packaging.

Creating a map panning video with the QGIS 3D map view

QGIS 3.X includes a 3D map view (View -> New 3D Map View) which was developed by Lutra Consulting. The functionality to create flyover videos is integrated in this view. This can also be used to create panning and zooming videos of conventional maps. In this article I explain how I made such a video.

I realized this project in the context of my monthly mapping of the Critical Mass Essen bicycle tour. At critical mass events large numbers of bicyclist drive through a city as a convoy in a random fashion. This serves to create awareness for cycling as an environmental friendly, healthy, and economic mode of transport.

The window below shows the 2-minute mp4 video I made, embedded via my Youtube-channel.

This is how I created the video. First, I logged the tour with the open source GPSLogger app as a KML file. I loaded the file into QGIS, and and manually removed the worst GPS jitters, to get a smooth curved line representing the tour.

I chose a light orange tone for the line, start and end points, and labels. As a labeling font I used DIN Schablonierschrift, a font that has it’s background in stencil writing often seen on German streets.

Using the QGIS QuickMapServices plugin, I set the Bing Aerial map as a background, which I turned to grayscale in the layer settings. I reduced the brightness and contrast to get a background where the light orange line would be better visible.

The elaborate camera movements needed some structure to be set up. Thus I created a point layer with helping points. I measured the distances between the points using the measure tool, and included the accumulated distance from the first point as an attribute. The time at which each point should be shown is then calculated as timePoint = timeOffset + distancePoint * totalTime/totalDistance.

In the 3D map view a press on the „play“ icon opens the animation/video timeline below the view. The current camera point of view can be added as a keyframe to the animation with a click on the „+“ icon. Thus I could set up the animation keyframes manually quite fast with the previously specified points and times. Enabling „Show camera’s view center“ in the 3D map view settings allows to cleanly focus on given points. The camera can not just be panned and zoomed, but also be tilted and turned but I intentionally did not use these possibilites.

There are a few pitfalls when creating animations in the 3D view. I constantly kept overwriting keyframes. It is necessary to reset the keyframe to <none> after having created a new keyframes, otherwise the keyframe is further being edited through the mouse movements.

I had some problems with panning movements done in rough steps (visible in mp4, not in gifs). In such cases the panning movements were much smoother when I changed the zoom level of a point, ran the animation and then set the zoom level back.

Also there were some glitches visible as tiles were reloaded during panning. It turns out that the settings for map tile resolution, max screen error, and max. ground error have a big impact on how tiles are loaded. In my case adjusting the tile resolution to a large 2048 px resolved all visible tile glitches.

When I was satisfied with the created animation, I recorded the video from the screen using the open source software shareX. With this tool it is possible to cleanly select the 3D view window with a single click and record the video in mp4 format. The recorded video is slightly more choppy then the animation visible in QGIS. In QGIS 3.6 it is apparently also possible to directly export animation frames from the 3D viewer.

As a final step, I used the open source video editing software Shotcut to add the white caption in the upper left into the mp4 file. I also used the program to export the gif extract shown above. The file size was reduced with the online gif optimizer Ezgif.

The art of Qiu Shihua: monochrome to the extreme

Monochrome images, that is images in which only shades of a single color are used, have a nice reduced, minimalist look to them. When the saturation and contrast between used shades is low, the images seem airy and ephemeral. The effect can for instance often be seen in black and white photographs in light grey tones.

Being a fan of this look, I visited the exhibition Scheinbar: nichts – Bildwelten von Qiu Shihua im Dialog in the Situation Kunst exhibiton space in Bochum (prolonged until 05.05.2019). Qiu Shihua is a contemporary chinese artist born in 1940. He is known for his monochrome white landscape paintings. His work is rooted in chinese landscape painting and taoist philosophy.

Glancing at the paintings shortly give the impression that this must be some kind of concept art hoax.

Only when viewed from a distance, and after some time, when the eyes have adapted to the very low contrast, do deep landscapes with trees, lakes, sunlight, waves and clouds appear from the white mist. This is something that one really needs to experience standing in front of the paintings. Because Qiu Shihua works with very subtle shades of white, it is quite difficult to capture this effect in photographs. Here are two photos where the landscapes are somewhat visible:

For me this was the most impressive contemporary art I’ve seen in some time. Qiu Shihua is apparently one of the most outstanding artists in the field of monochrome painting. And his work is a reminder of the wonder which the human eye is, being able to discern about 10 million different colors. Maybe we should give it a chance from time to time do so.

Critical Mass Essen january 2019 tour

At critical mass events bicylists meet and drive through a city as a convoy. This creates awareness for cycling as a mode of transport. I logged the january tour and turned the data into an animated map:

Due to rain the tour was shorter than usual, taking about 83 minutes. With a distance of 15,1 km covered the average speed was only about 10,9 km/h. The convoy drives at a leisurely pace and slows down at many traffic lights in the inner city area.

The first kilometer seems a bit short. This was due to circling at the start of the tour and circling in two roundabouts. These movements only become visible when the animation is played at small time intervals. A fast movement can be seen at about 20:07. There the convoy drove downhill through a tunnel. The right/left orientation of the bicycle icon is based on the logged bearing data, i.e. the direction of travel. Some flickers can be seen in this data, especially during stops.

The orthophotography recolored to a monochrome blue makes the city look more densely covered than in the other maps I‘ve seen. This is of course mainly due to the green color being lost, but also due to other factors. I’ve noticed that cemeteries, garden colonies and parks are mostly drawn green in standard maps, while they appear similar to urban fabric in satellite photography. This reminds me of using less processed maps and more raw satellite imagery when plausibility checking geographic data.

The animation was produced in the following workflow. I logged the tour with the GPSLogger app. I used a self-written python script to convert the time sequence of points as a CSV file into a time sequence of lines summarizing the tour up to that point as a geojson file. I set up the tour data in the QGIS Time Manager and exported the frames as PNG images. I loaded the images as layers in Gimp, applied the gif-animation filter for optimization and exported it as an animatedGIF. The GIF file I additionally converted to a MP4 video file using Shotcut.

Some technical details are noteworthy. Especially superimposing the labels and icons in QGIS required some tweaking. I downloaded the bicycle icon as a SVG file from wikimedia commons and constructed a right/left version of it. The logged data contains a bearing field (direction of travel). Using rule-based labeling, for a bearing up to 180 degrees a right-driving bicycle is shown, for larger bearings a left-driving bicycle is shown. QGIS always places labels above icons. This can be worked around by making the icon part of the label by using it as a background image in the label settings. The kilometer markings were set to a low priority and to alway draw to keep them in the background. Dark blue halos were used for all labels to make them better visible. For normal symbols, the outer shadow effect can be used to emulate halos, but for icons used as label backgrounds only the weak shadow functionality is available. Thus I added the icon halos directly into the SVG files using Inkscape.

The orthophotographs I downloaded from the open geodata portal of Nordrhein-Westfalen. The JP2 files (JPEG 2000) can be directly loaded as georeferenced data into QGIS. To get a monochrome image I converted the image to greyscale and colored it blue in the layer settings.

Impressum

Calender 2019 in Bauhaus-inspired style

In the last weeks I have been searching for the calender equivalent of a Bauhaus style watch. Such watches, notably those designed by Max Bill*, are functional and free from decorative elements. They have a timeless elegance about them. Available German office calenders, for example this Brunnen calender, lack elegance in the details. In fact the only widely acknowledged calender in a modernist design seems to be this calender designed by Massimo Vignelli in 1966.

Thus I created my own Bauhaus-inspired calender. You can download it here and print it yourself double-sided on standard DIN A4 paper, resulting in a DIN A5 sized calender. The pages are folded in the middle and then reversed and refolded as the months change. With twelve months on three standard sheets of paper this is a minimalist calender that deserves the name. I prepared two versions (in German only):

I experimented with several possibilities of hanging the calender with standard office equipment. I finally settled on using a small (white) foldback clip (see picture). This serves as hanger, binding, and presses the pages together a bit to keep them from fluttering. If you use thick paper (170 g/m² works well) you can also stand it upright as a desktop calender. Other methods also work. You can punch a whole in the middle (be careful when doing this, if the hole is not centered the pages will be badly aligned when you rotate pages) or pass a loop of string under the fold. The pages may then look less fluttery if you fix them with a paper clip or similar means in the lower middle. Pins and magnets also work, of course.

I created the calender using the open source layout program Scribus. I wanted a font that is similar to Paul Renner’s Futura, but runs wider. I ended up using the free fonts Typo Grotesk for lettering and Florence Sans for numerals.

This project nicely demonstrates how minimalist design works. An effortless, natural looking design is often the result of a lot of work on the details. I used an underlying raster here and fine-tuned character spacing, weight, size, and alignment of two different fonts to get the desired result. Also, elegant minmalism and straightforward simplicity are not the same thing. A straightforward simple design would keep all lettering and numerals at the same size and omit the line under the weeks. But when such details are omitted the design loses all depth and sophistication.



*Note: Max Bill studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau 1927 – 1928. The Bauhaus Institution was closed in 1933. Max Bill designed his famous wristwatch designs for Junghans around 1961. So it can be a matter of debate whether these watches should be called „Bauhaus watches“. Earlier watch designs considered to be typical for the Bauhaus such as the Stowa Antea and the Nomos Tangente show similar design characteristics. The Nomos Tangente was designed by Suzy Günther around 1990 based on a watch from the 1930s. Stowa has been producing watches in the look since 1937. The original watchfaces were produced by the company Weber & Baral in Pforzheim, whose founder Arthur Weber played a role in its design. (Where is the connection between Arthur Weber in Pforzheim and the Bauhaus ?)

Impressum




Critical Mass Essen december tour

At critical mass events bicylists meet and drive through a city as a convoy. This creates awareness for cycling as a mode of transport. The following animated map shows the Critical Mass tour through Essen in december.

Based on the previous animation for november, I identified some patterns of how such a convoy might typically move. Some of the identified behavioral pattern are again visible in this december tour. A preference for wide main roads can again be seen. Though with the background map showing only building polygons this is not as well visible. Even though there is no prefixed tour, the convoy seems to move in a partially destination-oriented way. The tour to the north-east circled around the Zeche Zollverein site and back. The small loop in the south served to retrieve a bicyle grill from a participant’s garage. The tour ended at a location in the south for an end-of-year get-together. The supposed preference for right hand turns resulting in clockwise loops cannot be observed in the december tour. The two visible loops are both counter-clockwise. Though the legal basis for these events is fairly clear, the tour was held up by ill-informed police officers. The tour continued after some lengthy explantions.

The map also reveals some of the hidden beauties of Essen. The Zeche Zollverein in the north-east is a historic coal mine. It is Essen’s trademark and an Unesco World Heritage site. Large free spaces are visible between the building polygons. Due to the many parks and forests in the city, Essen was the European Green Capital 2017.

The animation was constructed using the open source tools QGIS with the Time Manager plugin, Gimp and the GPSLogger app. The background shows building polygons from Open Streetmap data.

The general wokflow was as follows. I logged the tour at a 5 second interval using the GPSLogger app. I wrote a python script that converted the individual points logged in a CSV file to lines in a geojson file with time as an attribute. This geojson file I opened in QGIS and converted it to a shapefile for use with the Time Manager. I set up the Time Manager with a time interval of 51 seconds. This leads to a nice counting up of seconds in the time display. I added a manually constructed point layer with the labels and associated times when the tour passes those points. The resulting time animation I exported as individual frames in PNG format. These files I loaded as layers in gimp. I applied the gif optimization filter and adjusted the color palette to 255 colors in order to get a clean white background. Finally I exported the animation as a gif.

Impressum

A dot matrix as an animated data chart

Dot-matrix displays have a nice retro-futuristic look to them. Here is an animated data chart I made based on this look. The chart shows the result of the federal parliament election in the German federal state of Hessen on the 28.10.2018 and compares them to the previous results of 2013.

LandtagswahlHessen2013-2018-Animtation-InkscapeGimp

(Note: the animation may take a moment to load)

It can clearly be seen that the two parties currently governing in Berlin, CDU and SPD, lost a lot of votes. Large gains can be seen for the Grünen (GRU), an ecological party, and the AfD, a right-wing populist party. After this election chancelor Merkel from the CDU announced that she will not be candidating for another mandate.

Obviously this data chart is more about experimenting with an interesting visual style than about legibility and precision. Party names had to be abbreviated (AND stands for „Andere“ meaning „others“) and values had to be rounded.

I made this animated chart with the open source graphic programs Inkscape and Gimp. First, I constructed the individual frames as vectorgraphics in Inkscape, reusing as many elements as possible. Then I exported them as PNG files. These I loaded as layers into Gimp. I optimized the layers for gif using the animation filter (Filter → Animation → Optimize for gif). This leaves only the differences between individual frames as layers, which makes the final file considerably smaller. Then I tweaked the frame durations to result in a fluid motion. I opted for a linear acceleration and deceleration for the buildup and teardown of bars. This results in a slight „trampoline“ effect with slower motion at the start and end. The appropriate frame durations for this I calculated in a spreadsheet. Finally I exported the animation as a gif from Gimp.

Data sources:

2018 election results for Hessen, preliminary: https://statistik-hessen.de/l_2018/html/BVII2_3_5j18.pdf?0.6230891933869832

2013 election results for Hessen: https://statistik-hessen.de/l_2013/SLand2.pdf

Seating order (left to right) in the Hessen parliament before 2018: https://hessischer-landtag.de/sites/default/files/scald/files/25Sitzverteilung_Stand_August_2018.pdf

Impressum

Critical Mass Essen: Visualization of the route as an animated map

At Critical Mass events large numbers of cyclists meet and drive through the city in a random way as a convoy. This serves to create awareness for cycling as a mode of transport.

CriticalMassEssen

I logged the route of the november Critical Mass in Essen and turned it into an animated map. The background shows the route network available to cyclists, i.e. the road network including cycling tracks but without footpaths and motorways.

CriticalMassEssenNovember2017-Animation-QGISGimp

(Note: the animation may take a moment to load.)

Looking at the map shows some interesting behavioral trends that are not immediately apparent when driving in the convoy. There seems to be a preference for wide main roads. The reason is that these are better suited when cycling in large numbers and are better for getting visibily and creating some chaos. An alternation can be seen between cycling to somewhere and cycling in a random fashion. The route to the south and back connects the Essen city center and the southern subcenter in Rüttenscheidt. During random tours there seems to be a preference for right turns resulting in clockwise movements.

For those interested, here some details about how this animation was made. It was constructed using the open source tools QGIS with the Time Manager plugin, Gimp, and the open source GPSLogger app. The background shows Open Streetmap data. Only those roads are displayed that are usable by cyclists i.e. normal roads and cycling tracks, but not foot paths and motorways.

First I logged the tour at a 10 second interval using the app. The resulting CSV file I imported into QGIS. I converted the file format to Geojson which allows editing. I manually corrected the jitters in the logged data which showed some deviations of 10-20 meters. Then I exported the file format to GML because the Time Manager does not seem to support all functions for geojson files. I set up the time animation in the Time Manager Plugin using an interpolation for the points. The glow effect was created with the drawing effect „outer glow“. The trail in the animation was created by registering the points again, setting the end time to cumulative and showing only the glow without the source. The resulting time animation I exported as individual frames. These I loaded as layers in Gimp. I rescaled the image and applied the gif optimization filter. I added the title and finally exported the animation as a gif.

Impressum