The Visual Display of Quantitative (and Nerve-Wracking) Information

Nerve-wracking, calming, infuriating, or unsettling, this is high season for political polling. When the figures get too much to bear, and our heads are swimming with conflicting numbers, we here at Might & Main HQ like to focus on the information design behind the polls.

A daily stop for me is The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog. Nate Silver mines data from all over to calculate and compile a comprehensive view of the political landscape. Partnering with the NYTimes graphic and interactive journalists, he’s responsible for the most consistently informative and well designed graphs and charts available. 

From simple spark-line charts to detailed interactive charts, the information is always presented clearly and with clever organization. Information is king, and the interactive and design elements are there to highlight key information and illuminate details, not to decorate or complicate.


In this graph of how states have shifted in the elections of the last 60 years, the simple red-blue of republican-democrat forms the entirety of the simple palette. With ‘More Democratic’ and ‘More Republican’ dominating the X axis in a fairly wide spread, we can quickly see the overview of the chart, and the most compelling information: states have shifted loyalty between parties drastically over the years, creating an undulating helix over time.

Rolling over a particular data point illuminates the record of that single state, shows percentages and number of electoral votes, and the information shifts through time periods as your mouse enters a new time bracket. And we’re invited to switch the view from ‘Size of Lead’ to ‘Electoral Votes’ for a different take. Data nerds could spend hours here...

What we love about the design is that you quickly and easily get the 30,000 foot view, and are then able to spend as much time and effort drilling down as you like. Regular callouts on the left side point out specific areas of interest through time, such as Jimmy Carter’s immense home state advantage in 1976. Or the change in the South to Republican dominance after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 


On a much more playful note, depicts states as balloons, and their volume is dictated by the amount of electoral votes they get. There’s some cool interactive stuff happening here, with details about the states popping out as you roll over one balloon (and the other balloons bounce out of the way with some nice physics). The state’s icon below the big number is highlighted to connect the balloon with the state (rolling over the state icon will also highlight the balloon). A simple study in hierarchy, the most important item is the answer to the question posed (currently a big YES). Then we’re allowed to see the relative closeness of the race in the size of the balloon bunches, as well as their corresponding large numbers in blue and red.

The unifying properties of these examples are simplicity, clear hierarchy, and a commitment to putting the data first. These are hallmarks of successful information design.

A bonus in making information design interactive is allowing the viewer to choose how much detail they want. By changing parameters or highlighting various elements, we’re invited in to explore and customize our experience. For data nerds like us, that’s pretty exciting.


As an interesting complement to all of this absolute red and blue, we also like the Purple America map. Rather than view each state as absolutely Democratic or Republican, it breaks down the nation by county and allows the color to range through shades of purple between red and blue. We can quickly see that America is not quite as polarized as we’re often led to believe. There are certainly pockets of more pure blues and reds, but we’re left with an image of our country that inspires a little bit more hope that we might understand each other’s positions and work together more. I would love to see an interactive version of this map to reveal how we’ve shifted over the last 12 years. You can view the last 3 presidential election maps here.