Top 10 Iconic Data Graphics

Photography has yielded many iconic images, but what are the most iconic data graphics? FastCoLabs asked the authors of some of the web’s top visualization blogs to tell us their picks for the most iconic data graphics of the past 10 years.

Photographers have created many iconic images, but Biostatistics professor Roger Peng recently asked “What are the iconic data graphs of the past 10 years?” FastCoLabs called in Andy Kirk of Visualising Data, Robert Kosara of Eager Eyes, and Matt Stiles, the data editor of NPR, to help answer that question. You can see their selections in the slideshow above.


The first three data graphics–WindMap, GapMinder, and the Ebb and Flow Streamgraph–were selected by multiple members of our panel. Reflecting the controversial nature of such a list, each of the remaining graphics were chosen as iconic by a single panelist.

Wind Map

Wind Map is an art project created by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg. It makes the invisible visible using near-term wind speed forecast data from the National Digital Forecast database, which is updated hourly.

“A wonderfully elegant and transfixing portrayal of wind,” says Kirk. “Aside from being widely celebrated across the field, it also became the go-to tool during the severe wind events that struck the U.S. during 2012, elevating it beyond just being a beautiful design into an actual utility that people turned to, learned from, and discussed.”


You can zoom in on particular regions of the country, find the wind velocity at at a precise latitude and longitude, and browse wind patterns from the past such as when Hurricane Sandy made landfall. Gazing at Wind Map has a similar mesmerizing effect to looking into the flickering flames of an open fire.


Swedish physician/statistician Hans Rosling’s famous 2006 TED talk debunked myths about the so-called “developing world” and has been viewed by millions. The talk was accompanied by animated graphics created using the Gapminder Foundation‘s Trendalyzer software.

“In a way, Gapminder was nothing new,“ says Kosara. “Animated scatterplots had been done before. But the way Hans Rosling used them to show data and make it interesting was a huge eye-opener for the visualization community. Who knew that you could use visualization not just to analyze data, but to present it, and make it interesting? This wouldn’t have worked without Rosling’s performance, but that only worked because he had impressive charts to work with.”


Rosling transformed dry statistics about serious global issues into an illuminating form of entertainment, earning him a spot on Time magazine’s 2012 100 most influential people list.

The Ebb and Flow Streamgraph

The New York Times published Ebb and Flow of Movies: Box Office Receipts 1986-2008, an interactive stream graph in 2008, which won the Peter Sullivan Best Graphic prize at the prestigious Malofiej awards the following year. Ebb and Flow presents time series data where the vertical axis of the area representing a particular movie shows its domestic gross box office takings while the horizontal axis portrays its longevity in the box office. Darker colors mean higher takings.

“A genuinely divisive piece when published, and still being debated today,” says Kirk.”It offers so much potential for analysis and discourse about the value and impact of visualization. Its enigmatic and (certainly back then) novel form, enchanted as many as it repelled.”


Streamgraphs are controversial since the varying baseline can make them hard to read or even misleading. Graphic designer Gert Gielsen explained some of these problems in a post on how Ebb and Flow was Too Sexy for its own good.

“The StreamGraph has a lot of issues that are common in stacked area charts,” says Kosara. ”In particular, the baselines for virtually all the areas are some odd shape, rather than straight, making it hard to read exact numbers. That’s not the point of this chart though, and it works fine for the particular data here: short, initial spikes that slowly decrease.”

Paths to the White House

Shan Carter, the New York Times’ interactive graphics editor, said that when designing a new electoral vote calculator for the 2012 presidential election, he decided two things: “It shouldn’t include electoral votes or calculations.” The obvious choice was an electoral map, but such maps are misleading in that a large state with a small population looks more significant than one with more electoral votes. The result was Paths to the White House, which represented all 512 possible paths available to the two candidates on their way to the White House in a single decision tree chart.


“During the last week or so before the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, there were a lot of arguments about Nate Silver’s forecasts and whether the race was still close or not,” says Kosara. “This visualization showed how overwhelming things were in Obama’s favor, and made a lot of people realize that Silver was right. The chart’s unusual shape and clever interactivity make it iconic.”

Paths to the White House gives a succinct visual summary of the data without losing any of the micro-level information. Mike Bostock of the New York Times explains how the interactive tree was designed and built in this blog post.

Death and Taxes

Since 2004, the mind-bogglingly detailed Death and Taxes infographic has been depicting the federal budget and now contains data for over 500 departments, agencies, and programs.


“One of the most famous infographics of recent years,” says Kirk, “the designer Jess Bachman takes time every year to research and update this visual account of how U.S. tax dollars are spent.”

Death and Taxes is designed to be printed as a six-foot-square poster rather than displayed online. The 2012 version showed significant reductions in the military budget. It also adds some non-governmental items like the the video game industry and Bill Gate’s net worth in the poster to give a better idea of the scale of government spending. After 10 years of producing Bachman passed the torch to Time Plots who just released the 2014 version.

Gay Rights, State By State

The Guardian’s Gay Rights, State by State won the data-driven storytelling prize for big media at this year’s Data Journalism awards. This radial chart gives a breakdown of all gay rights, not just gay marriage, from hospital visitation rights to hate crimes. The states are organized by region, making it easy to see where different areas of the country stand.


“I don’t normally like radial-style graphics,” says Stiles, “but this is an exception. I enjoy the normalized version that accounts for population. The regional differences really pop off the screen.”

The graphic is supplemented by a clever Facebook application which displays the rights available in the states in which your friends live.

Bikini Chart

The Bikini Chart (which I’m pretty sure is not the official title), was published by the Obama administration in 2012 to show job losses during the last year of the Bush administration and the first year after Obama took office, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows that the monthly job loss trend started to reverse itself during Obama’s first year.


“This chart is iconic for its shape, which is what gave it its name,” says Kosara. “It’s also remarkable because it is one of the few examples of political messaging (or propaganda) that’s purely based on numbers. Some clever choices, like the bars pointing down and the symmetry, make this easily readable and quite effective.” Usually bars pointing down are used for negative numbers, and job loss statistics are not negative.

Kosara also points out on his blog that although the colors used are the traditional colors of the Republican and Democratic parties, “the dark color, especially towards the lower end, makes the red bars appear heavier than the blue ones. Since they are also pointing down, the additional weight might make them appear longer, or at least cause people to remember them as longer.”

A Peek Into Netflix Queues

A Peek Into Netflix Queues is another New York Times production from 2010, showing Netflix rental patterns, neighborhood by neighborhood, in a dozen cities.


“An amazing data set, perhaps more interesting than anything released by the U.S. Census Bureau, “ says Stiles. “And I also enjoy the interaction of tabbing through movies in my city and hypothesizing what’s driving the rental patterns.”

The queue data was accessed through the Netflix API and zip code boundaries from the U.S. Census. In many cases, a rental most popular in one zip code was not among the top 50 titles of a neighboring one. Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for example, was popular all over Manhattan and in Westchester, but did not appear in the top 50 rentals in most of the South Bronx and Brooklyn.

Why Is Her Paycheck Smaller?

Why Is Her PayCheck Smaller? shows the stark salary gap between people doing the same job, who happen to be of different genders.


“This chart is not as well-known as it should be, but it deserves a lot more attention, “ says Kosara. ”Scatterplots are quite unusual in the news, because people often have a hard time reading them. Not only is this a scatterplot that presents quite a bit of data, but it also adds an incredibly smart aid to reading it in the form of a few simple lines.”

The data came from the current Population Survey for 2007 and includes occupations for which there were at least 50,000 responses for each gender. You can filter by occupation. Female physicians and surgeons, for example, make 40% less than their male counterparts.

How Common is Your Birthday?

How Common is Your Birthday? is a simple heat map on everyone’s favorite subject–themselves–showing the most popular birthdays in the U.S.


“Full disclosure: This one is mine,” says Stiles. “It has its flaws, but it’s the most popular thing ever on my blog with 250,000 page views. It’s been published in dozens if not hundreds of other places, including Reader’s Digest, and it’s set to be published in Best American Infographics this fall. People love their birthdays, I guess.”

The data is how many babies were born in the United States on each date between 1973 and 1999. Colors were shaded by birthday rank, from 1 to 366, in popularity rather than by numbers of actual births. September 16 was the most common birthday, Feb. 29 the least common for obvious reasons.

[Image: Flickr user Ricardo Lago]


About the author

Lapsed software developer, tech journalist, wannabe data scientist. Ciara has a B.Sc. in Computer Science and and M.Sc in Artificial Intelligence