We’re excited to have released an update to A Visual History of the American Presidency, one of our large-format historical Timeplots posters.
Here are three behind-the-scenes reflections from the update process:
1. Do it in code
Even for a static poster, the benefits of creating the poster with code are large. One of the primary advantages of this is to make updates more efficient. Another is being able to standardize elements across the entire poster (for example, ensuring all elements use a common time axis and color coding). This is particularly important for large products such as posters.
This poster is almost entirely created in R using the plotrix library. While R is generally used for working with data, it also has a wide range of design capabilities. In this case, final embellishments and layout adjustments happen in Adobe Illustrator, but the majority of the finished product is produced by R scripts.
2. Effective visualizations of history give a sense of perspective
The best works of history help readers/viewers/users take the long view, zooming out from the current moment and putting things in context. We aim to do this with our Timeplots posters. For me personally, working on this poster provided perspective on Donald Trump’s presidency, seeing it in the larger context of a long line of American presidents (which might be comforting or alarming, depending on your perspective).
3. Visualizing history and politics requires many subjective choices
Creating a historical political poster is in some ways a journalism project, requiring the creator to be a thoughtful editor of the vast array of information that could be included. This includes big questions such as what topics to focus on and how much prominence to give each (this poster covers a range of subjects, including elections, the economy and spending, wars, the Congress, and presidents’ experience).
This also means carefully choosing specific data points and how to display them (for example, which economic measures to highlight). One update we made on this poster was adding presidents’ business experience, which helps gives a fuller sense of presidents’ prior experience and helps fill out Donald Trump’s otherwise thin biography. Each choice like this involves knowledge of the topic at hand, and some amount of subjective judgment.
Head over to the Timeplots site for more details and to get your copy.