the sally sisson blog

November 4, 2010

Left vs. Right: Re-visualizing the political spectrum (in polarizing times)

l vs r

Click for full size version:

Left vs. Right: A Visualization of the Political Spectrum

Fair and balanced

Back in January I posted this infographic on my Facebook page as an interesting example of information design. I found it thought-provoking, but didn’t bother to articulate why.

Then this morning, I was watching a TED talk on YouTube with information designer David McCandless, and up popped the same chart. (Ironically, I had just come indoors after pulling my collection of political yard signs out of the ground, hoping to appease my neighbors.)

Viewing the graphic nearly a year later, in the aftermath of the cut-throat mid-term elections, it struck me as quaint and out of date. The hues of red and blue now looked too subdued, the lines too soft around the edges. It’s a friendly looking graphic, in contrast to the technicolor FOX News one in my mind.

And I guess that’s part of the point — and perhaps the chief reason it begs a second look. These are polarizing times, and we desperately need to find some commonality.

Oh say, can you see…

As McCandless eloquently described the thought process behind his infographic, I scribbled down his words (on Post-its, the back of an envelope, and the margins of the comics section of the Boston Globe). Here’s the bit that resonated with me most:


“When I was designing this image, I desperately wanted this side, the left side, to be betterthan the right side (…being a journalist type, a left-leaning person). But I couldn’t because I would have created a lopsided, biased diagram. So in order to really create a full image I had to honor the perspectives on the right-hand side, and at the same time I had to sort of, uncomfortably, recognize how many of qualities were actually in me—which was really, really annoying… and uncomfortable.

“But not too uncomfortable … because there’s something unthreatening about seeing a political perspective versus being told or forced to listen to one.

You’re capable of holding conflicting viewpoints, joyously even, when you can see them.”

consiousnessA matter of perspective

“That’s what’s exciting for me: to see how data can change my perspective and change my ideas, even mid-stream.”

— David McCandless, author of Information is Beautiful,
available on and at

Watch the entire TED Talk here:

David McCandless: The beauty of data visualization

(Click on link above. The Left vs. Right bit is at 14:50.)

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October 13, 2010

Typographic Cartography: Information design at its best

Typographic Maps

I love these maps. Brilliant concept, beautifully executed. Fun yet functional. The very definition of information design. The approach is very basic: The bigger the street or geographic feature, the bigger the type.

It works for me.


Axis Maps has covered Boston and Chicago so far; maps of San Francisco, New York City and Washington D.C. are in the works. I stumbled upon these via Fast Company Design on Twitter.

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October 30, 2009

Rub-a-dub-TUB (part one): Pot bellies, bathtubs and the birth of “information architecture”

TUB sign

Last month I flew out to San Francisco to attend the TUB 20-year reunion. What is TUB, you ask? I spent a lot of time answering this question before and after the event.

TUB stands for The Understanding Business. A clever name coined for a design firm/guidebook publisher in the business of “making information understandable.”

Understand? No, you’re not alone. Ironically, those of us who worked there spent years trying to explain the name.

Our boss, Richard Saul Wurman, architect, designer and co-founder of the TED Conference, came up with it. He waxed lyrical when asked to describe the name in an interview with Information Design:

“It is a peculiar word because it has the word ‘under’ and ‘standing’ in it: what does that mean? How did that happen? ‘Under’ is a negative term, and ‘standing’, which is a different thing, those two words together create a word of such warmth. I named a company ‘The Understanding Business’; the initials are TUB. This has two meanings: the fact that I have a big pot belly and because Archimedes was in a bathtub when he said, ‘Eureka, I understand!’ For me, it is all about understanding.”

Try explaining that at a cocktail party.

Wurman coined the term “information architecture” more than 30 years ago. Now “information design” is a more accurate description of the work we did at TUB.

All kidding aside, TUB helped shape me as a writer and editor and content developer in important ways. Plus I made some amazing friends. Why else would I fly 3,000 miles for an office reunion?

Read Wurman’s full interview here:

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