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Artistic Value, Information, Or Functionality?

Artistic Value, Information, or Functionality?

Recently, Timeplots released a new poster – A Visual History of the U.S. House of Representatives, an addition to its political poster series, making a set of six.

Graphicacy, the design partner of Timeplots, has been working on the poster over the past several months; in the same way we worked with Scientific American’s Longevity graphic, we paired the print poster with an interactive graphic of similar design elements.

Since the poster and interactive have both been out for a while, and we’ve been collecting reviews and comments regarding both, it seems to be a good time to look back and reflect.


What are they?

We have been planning to visualize an ideological House since we worked on the U.S. Senate poster. Way back in graduate school in the early 1990s, Nathaniel was exposed to the Nominate ideology scores. Through that process, each representative, based on their voting records, is given an ideology score for every term of Congress in which he or she served. Given the constraints of the poster scale and the time plot format, we tried to find a way to overlay hundreds of scores within a limited space, and eventually came up with dots slightly overlapping each other to reveal the trend. The image at the top is an initial look at the centerpiece of the House poster.

Each circle represents one representative’s ideology score in a given Congress. The higher circles with positive values represent more liberal members; the lower circles, with negative values, represent more conservative members. Circles are color coded to show each representative’s party affiliation. Following common practice, red circles represent House Republicans, and blue circles represent House Democrats. If you look at the graph carefully, you will not only get a clear sense of a divided House in recent years, but you will also notice there are a series of blue dots appearing as positive values, which depicts conservative House Democrats, even in some recent Congresses.

Then we put the centerpiece in context. From the top down, we added information on the presidency, House speakers, major legislation, and landmark events. To give a summary of the balance of party control in each Congress, we made “pillbox” graphics at the top.


Balance of Power – Pillbox


Beneath the main graphic, we added a series of cartogram maps and shaded each state in each decade according to the ideology scores of their House representatives. The cartograms are useful because they resize the states according to the number of representatives, rather than the physical area of the state.


State Power Cartograms


Why an interactive version?

As a service package for our clients, pairing of print and web interactive works well. We would like to take more of the Timeplots data and show it interactively because it helps to reveal additional layers of information and allows viewing through multiple lenses that are not possible in print applications.

In the print version if you could go close enough, you would want to see the individuals. So we tried to preserve the look of the main poster graphic, but allow filtering and drilling down into the individual information.

Who does each circle represent? Which party, or state, is the representative affiliated with? How has the ideological spectrum changed for a particular state? The interactive lets you explore all of these. Try it yourself!




If you’ve used the state and party filter on the right side, you might have noticed that a red state could be very liberal in early years. i.e. Texas representatives for early years were mostly (very liberal) Democrats! Why?


Achievements and Future Possibilities

In the end, we created a pairing of print and interactive.

In order to make the poster artistically appealing, we tried several different sketches. Considering the constraints of the horizontal poster format and the dataset of more than 20 parties, we chose colors and settled on the current dot-flow chart. It would be nice to improve the speed of the interactive.

If we were not mimicking the layout of the poster piece in the interactive, we might have had been able to make a more user-friendly interface.

To properly associate data and meaning while displaying different levels of information, designers and developers face lots of choices. How to do it well is an ongoing question for our team, and for every information graphics firm out there. How can we best balance artistic value, information, or functionality? How would you rate this House project on those dimensions?

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