How does one convey the gravity of the loss, which is so enormous it can almost seem abstract? News outlets have used bar charts, line charts, and heat maps to convey each new and tragic milestone over the past year. Now, the most effective visualizations use design to both capture the data at its massive scale and bring it back to Earth with visuals that remind us that each data point is a person and a life lost.
“It’s particularly challenging to not let us fall into the trap of getting used to it and accepting it and to continue to try to represent the incredible scale of this tragedy. That’s a challenge with any ongoing story like this,” says New York Times chief creative officer and creative director Tom Bodkin of the paper’s ongoing COVID-19 coverage, which has included a number of compelling visual treatments for print and web over the past year. “So we keep looking for new ways of visually representing the scale so that people can appreciate the volume of people who have been impacted by this.” Here are some of the data visualizations that most effectively capture this profound tragedy.
Making the visual conform to the data
At the end of January, New York Times graphics editors Lazaro Gamio and Lauren Leatherby designed a dot-density graph for the website that depicted the number of deaths at the time: 450,000. The graph uses a 1:1 ratio, so each dot represents one death. Readers continuously scroll down the page to see how the number of dots change in density over time.
“The nature of data visualization is that abstract symbols—lines, dots, bars—can represent 5 or 5,000 without changing their own physical form, a useful technique for many applications,” Gamio explains. “But to mark an occasion as devastating as this one, our goal was to maintain a 1:1 ratio in the data to try to express the magnitude of this milestone. This way, the data would not conform to the visual, and instead, the visual would conform to the data.” With the 500,000 milestone looming, The Times adapted the graphic for the constraints of its front page in print.
Gamio, who wrote the code that generated the dots, says it took two weeks of print tests to figure out how to fit half a million dots on page A1, which had less vertical space to utilize. It was a team effort. Gamio, Leatherby, graphics editor Bill Marsh, and art director Andrew Sondern adapted the visual for print, creating a dark, evocative gradient of dots down the center of the page. “What resulted was an almost completely saturated bottom portion of the graphic, representing an unthinkable winter: Thousands of Americans lost every single day, each one leaving a ripple effect of grief,” Gamio says.
This treatment from National Geographic provides a series of visual analogies to make sense of the numbers. It doesn’t use any charts or graphs at all. Instead, it uses black-and-white line illustrations of people in everyday situations to capture the human toll of the loss. One illustration depicts a kitchen bustling with cooks shown as white silhouettes, indicating that the loss is equivalent to all the fast-food cooks in the country. A similar treatment depicts the ’60s music fest Woodstock, which had about half a million attendees. Another illustration shows caskets lined end to end across a countryside. The line of 500,000 caskets would stretch for 645 miles.
Relatable visual analogies
Another striking visualization comes from designers Artur Galocha and Bonnie Berkowitz at The Washington Post. The interactive design also relies on visual analogies to make sense of the statistic, using the page’s continuous scroll for increased visual emphasis. To start with, it uses a common visual to ground readers: a bus. Users scroll down the page, slowly revealing that deaths from the last month alone would fill up 61 buses. Maps further contextualize the data, showing that it would require 9,804 buses over 94.7 miles to fit all 500,000 people who have lost their lives to COVID-19.
“It was important that we found a way to represent people in a humanized way,” says Chiqui Esteban, graphics director at The Washington Post, noting that after reporting several stories on the death toll, they realized readers might not grasp the scale of the number. So they decided to help break it down visually.
A separate graphic in this package imagines how tall the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would need to be to recognize all the victims of COVID-19: 87 feet. Another Post story used the AI image-generating tool This Person Does Not Exist to build a visualization that puts an imagined face with each life lost. Its near 1:1 scale is an incredibly visceral reminder that these are lives, not just data points.