How a Book Evolves

When James and I began this project in September 2013, we knew how to make maps and infographics. We did not yet know how to make a book of them.

As we quickly learned, producing a collection introduces other challenges. What colour palette will work for 100 graphics? What fonts? What page size? Every decision had to be modular enough to accommodate a variety of subjects, shapes and styles. Two tools made our task easier.


The first was our page grid (above). We chose a page size that would 1) be comfortable to hold; and 2) best fit the shape of London. Then we set margins, drew a six-column grid and developed text styles so we didn’t have to reinvent the book every time we started a new graphic. When you’re working at a pace of one new graphic every three days, that kind of time-saving is sleep-saving.

But how do you keep track of 100 graphics across 256 pages? Naturally, we made a map (coffee-stained detail, below).

A ‘book map’ is a storyboard. Our first one had 133 intimidating, empty boxes—one for each two-page spread in the book plus the covers and endpapers. Gradually, we penciled in ideas for graphics:

‘First Night of the Blitz’

‘Football fans by hashtag’

‘British Museum loans’

Once we had a few dozen graphics drafted, natural groupings began to emerge around five themes: geography, census data, transport patterns, social issues and leisure activities. These became our five chapters.

Within those chapters, new questions arose. ‘Which graphic should come first?’ ‘Which one should go last?’ In our transport chapter, ‘Where We Go’, it made sense to order the graphics by vehicle size; the chapter opens with airplanes and ships and ends on bikes and on foot.

One hundred graphics could easily have become a total mish-mash, a real slog for the reader. So James and I tried to think of the book map like a musical score. To keep the song interesting, we needed dynamics—a mix of loud and soft notes, fast and slow passages. In a book about dataviz, this also meant incorporating a mix of graphic and mapping forms.

We were careful not to employ forms for variety’s sake alone. We always chose forms to underscore the stories the data were telling us. For example, Buckminster Fuller’s unfolded icosahedron map gave us a great way to show London’s airports as the center of the world:

Hub for the World

Heat maps illustrated where violent crime flares up, where housing prices are burning holes in bank accounts and more literally, where Londoners feel the heat from the Urban Heat Island Effect:

Hot Spots

And the many rectangles of a treemap were the perfect metaphor for ‘Pill Boxes’—a plot of London’s most prescribed pharmaceuticals:

Pill Boxes

Of course, many ideas flopped. These left us with glaring holes in our book map. But if our idea for charting ‘British Museum loans’ hadn’t fallen through, we never would’ve been pushed to come up with one of our favorites—a salon-style treemap of the artists with the most works in the Tate Collection:

All the Tate's Treasures

One by one, we filled those empty boxes. And as you’ll see in the animation below, fifteen book maps later, we had a book:

Book map animation