Peter Crnokrak began his career researching quantitative genetics, a field that’s all about math, statistics, and massive datasets, and mining for the hidden patterns between them. This helps explain much about his work today. A decade ago, the Croatian-born Crnokrak left science to become, instead, a graphic artist. He tried for several years to stay away from technical work, from creating illustrations out of math and algorithms. But he eventually gave in to that subset of design–data visualization–that’s not so far removed from quantitative genetics. “As a designer,” he says, “I just kind of fell into that desire to want to get lost in visual detail.”
His visualizations, created under the nom de data viz of The Luxury of Protest, are both visually stunning and scientifically precise. And, as with his previous genetics research (he was trying to tease out the difference between nature and nurture in our genes), Crnokrak the graphic artist wrestles with enormous, core questions about humanity and history.
His most well-known piece, titled Everyone Ever in the World, tries to capture human history’s cumulative war dead as a proportion of every person who has ever lived since 3000 BC. That piece–meant, like all of his work, to be experienced as a physical installation rather than a JPEG–was honored last year by the journal Science in the National Science Foundation’s International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.
Crnokrak has also tried to illustrate the quantitative degree to which each of the 192 United Nations member states has contributed to peace and terror in the world. And more recently, he has graphed every known empire, colony, and territorial occupation since 2334 BC. In the resulting visual, individual empires overlap atop each other, revealing ebbs and flows in empire mania over time. That piece is called Never Forever Never for Now. (The titles themselves are meant to carry Crnokrak’s concepts in a poetic way, and he admits to having spent weeks just coming up with Everyone Ever, let alone doing the research for it.)
Geopolitics and history recur as his themes. “It’s always a big question,” says Crnokrak, who now works from London. “I think it’s just a part of my personality. Some people love the little itty-bitty aspects of life, and some people like grandiose, large, big-picture ideas.” Visually, his pieces also have a singular coherence. They eschew the X-Y axis often used to convey the passage of time in favor of circular shapes that hint instead at patterns repeating themselves throughout history. As many people have pointed out to him, the visuals look like eyes. “There’s something almost impossible to explain,” he says, “in terms of the desire to want to look at something round.”
His work is also usually black and white, another vestige of his time as a geneticist. Scientific journals–normally full of charts and graphs–simply don’t publish in color. And when he doesn’t have color to help explain things, Crnokrak says, that constraint forces him to focus on form. He is, in essence, trying to convey large datasets about human history using only the arrangement of that information on paper. “As a designer, when you’re doing very fanciful work, all you need to know is whether someone likes it or not,” he says. “But with data visualization, you really want to know, do people kind of get it? That’s a big question.”
The intricate text of Everyone Ever belies the fact that that piece is actually remarkably simple. It conveys the relationship between just two numbers: the total of humans born over the last five millennia and those who died in war. The larger number is captured by the full area of the paper, and the smaller one by the die cut at its center. That hole appears surprisingly small. Crnokrak had expected that war would have killed some 20% of the world’s cumulative population. It has, in fact, killed about 969 million people, by his calculation. But that figure turns out to be only about 1.25% of “everyone ever.”
“Those are the best kinds of data visualizations, where you actually learn something, and it makes you reassess your understanding of who we are,” Crnokrak says. So does that mean the graphic artist himself learned that we’re a more peaceful people than he thought? To Crnokrak, Everyone Ever turned into a reflection on these two seemingly conflicted statistics: the one absolute, the other proportional. “What’s interesting is that the visualization and the relationships of those two numbers make it impossible to answer, which is really fascinating,” he says. A billion dead people would suggest a human history of conflict. “But when you frame it as a proportion of the living,” Crnokrak says, “you really confound your ability to answer that question.” Of course, it’s fitting that his visualizations of massive, messy issues are not so simple themselves.