The use of color in maps

The use of color in maps and data visualizations has a long tradition. Color, along with position, size, shape, value, orientation, and texture is one of the primary means to encode data graphically.

Since William Playfair‘s revolutionary introduction of statistical graphs in the 1786 “Commercial and Political Atlas“, color has been used as a tool to convey categorical and quantitative differences in data visualization. Playfair used color coding to emphasize variations in economic trends and to differentiate variables in his graphs, which were hand-colored and distributed in limited editions.

Imports of cotton in Europe for the years 1858, 1864 and 1865. Charles Joseph Minard (1866). Source: Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Charles Joseph Minard is another pioneer of information graphics who used color to visualize flows of goods and people across countries in his thematic maps. The main purpose of his graphic explorations was to make ordinal relationships immediately visible to the eye and the use of color was a central aspect of this process. Minard is widely known for the invention of the flow map. He also authored the famous “Figurative Map of the successive losses in men of the French Army in the Russian campaign 1812-1813” – a map that, according to E. J. Marey, defied the pen of the historian with its brutal eloquence.

Although color has been present for centuries in handcrafted maps, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century, that the adaptation of lithographic techniques to printing allowed its wider use in graphic works. At that time, color became an important perceptual feature in the design of thematic maps and statistical diagrams (Friendly, 2009).

Wage and nationality maps, “Hull House Maps and Papers ” (1895) – a groundbreaking study, led by Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. The study was influenced by Charles Booth’s poverty maps of London.

Color as a visual variable

Color, along with position, size, shape, value, orientation, and texture is what Jacques Bertin calls a visual variable:
a set of symbols that can be applied to data in order to convey the underlying information. In that sense the wise and often conservative use of color is a prerequisite for accuracy in the graphic interpretation of data. When not used properly, color in maps can obscure the data and mislead the reader by concealing the actual state of the observed problem.

Movement of Iron Ore on the Great Lakes, 1897 and 1907. Map detail illustrating the use of color and texture as visual variables.

In order to apply color to maps effectively, a designer needs to manipulate properly the three perceptual dimensions that characterize it: Hue, Saturation and Lightness. Hue is what we associate with color names – red, green, blue etc. Saturation is the vividness of a color and is also known as Chroma or Intensity. Lightness is a relative measure describing how much light appears to reflect from an object compared to what looks white in the scene (Brewer, 1999). Lightness is perhaps the most important of the three perceptual dimensions when it comes to data representation and is used to show ordered differences.

1958 map of New York City by Eduard Imhof.

Color is applied to maps to encode or highlight data, but it also has an aesthetic dimension, perhaps best illustrated in the works of swiss mapmaker Eduard Imhof whose school maps and atlases are world famous examples of excellence in the domain of cartography. In his classic book on relief representation, Imhof dedicates a whole chapter to the use of color, providing invaluable guidance with a set of rules for color compositions. Although the chapter concerns mostly the use of hypsometric tints and the selection of colors for elements of the landscape, Imhof’s rules are timeless and applicable in other cases as well. Imhof insisted that strong, heavy rich and solid colors should be limited to the small areas of extremes in order to avoid the unbearable effects of placing them next to each other over large areas. He also suggested that base-colors are equally important since they allowed for the smaller, brighter areas to stand out: a principle that puts up the lighter shades of gray among the most versatile colors.

Generalized geologic map of the moon showing major geologic units grouped by age. Detail from I-1162 Geologic Map of the South Side of the Moon. USRA Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Types of color schemes

There are three main types of color schemes applied to maps: Qualitative, Sequential and Diverging. Binary schemes are also used to visualize nominal differences between two categories. Variation in all three perceptual dimensions of color – Hue, Saturation and Lightness – are applied to show differences in the data. The basic principle is that variations in hue visualize nominal/categorical differences while variations in lightness visualize ordinal differences. But the strict application of this rule varies from one case to another: qualitative schemes may apply plenty of variations in lightness, especially when there is a large number of categories to display and sequential scales can benefit from hue variations when they are first and foremost ordered by lightness.


Qualitative schemes are applied to discrete unordered classes of nominal data such as race or ethnicity. They are not appropriate for mapping ordered numerical data. The distinction between classes becomes visible through variations in hue, ideally with no or slight lightness differences between colors. If a class needs to be highlighted it is possible to use a darker or more saturated color to visualize it. Qualitative schemes may also consist of paired hues with lighter and darker shades of the same color, applied to related categories (ex: related land use categories such as single and multifamily residential buildings).

Sequential schemes are applied to ordered, often numerical data such as floor area ratio per lot or population density per square mile. Changes in color lightness correspond to the progression from low to high: light colors are used for lower values and the dark colors are used for higher values. Sequential schemes can derive from both single and multi-hue combinations. The higher the number of data classes – the more difficult the distinction between each step.

Diverging schemes are often described as a combination of two sequential schemes with a critical break point in the middle. The two sequences “diverge” from a shared light color that stresses important mid-ranges in the data. The two extremes are visualized by contrasting dark hues while changes in lightness are used to display intermediate values. Diverging schemes are usually symmetrical but specific data distribution may require shifting the break point towards either one of the extremes. Common examples of data suitable for diverging color scales are temperature variations and stock exchange dynamics.

color in maps: qualitative color scheme

Using a qualitative color scheme with both hue and lightness variations to map twelve categories of land use in New York City. Map by Morphocode

color in maps: sequential color scheme

Using a sequential color scheme to map floor area ratios in New York City. Map by Morphocode

color in maps: binary color scheme

An example of a binary color scheme. The map shows buildings that are currently part of the cultural heritage in Sofia in yellow and buildings that are no longer listed as such in blue. Map by Morphocode.




Design for the color-blind

Making a map accessible for people with color vision deficiency is another important thing to consider while designing color scales. Approximately 4.5 percent of the population worldwide is color blind with the red–green color blindness being the most common type. This decreased ability to recognize color affects more often men than women: around 8 percent of the male population is color blind while only 0.5 percent of women have some sort of color vision impairment.

color in maps: visual impairmentPeople who are color-blind can still see lightness differences and a fairly wide range of hue differences (Brewer, 1999). However qualitative schemes remain particularly difficult to read by color-blind users; sequential schemes, on the other hand, are much more accessible due to the lightness variation between each step. In order to make a categorical map readable by an audience with color vision impairment it is necessary to add variations in both hue and lightness between each step. Even then, if the categories are more than “the magical number 7” it would be almost impossible to make the map accessible. A possible solution to that problem is to add texture to make the steps more distinguishable from one another.

color in maps: accessibility


Mapping Urban Data: Online Course

In our upcoming online course Mapping Urban Data we will discuss in further detail the use of color to represent data on maps. You will learn how to design and apply sequential and categorical schemes through a series of practical examples. The course takes a hands-on approach to data visualization through a range of New York City–based case studies covering topics such as built density, land use and sidewalk cafés.

Mapping Urban Data: The Workflow
Choosing the right color scheme is part of the process of creating an interactive urban data visualization. The entire workflow will guide you through the process of spatial data exploration, map design, web mapping and map tiles generation, user interaction design, along with the coding skills required to finish the project. The course will be available soon offering special discounts to Morphocode Academy subscribers.


Course Overview

The course page is now live, with detailed information about its content, structure and key takeaways!

Learn More



Image sources:

1. Imports of cotton in Europe for the years 1858, 1864 and 1865. Charles Joseph Minard (1866) is courtesy of Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.
2. Wage and nationality maps, “Hull House Maps and Papers ” (1895) – a groundbreaking study, led by Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. The study was influenced by Charles Booth’s poverty maps of London.
3. Movement of Iron Ore on the Great Lakes, 1897 and 1907. The Newberry Digital Collection
4. 1958 map of New York City by Eduard Imhof. Source: wonderful Codex99 blog
5. Generalized geologic map of the moon. Detail from I-1162 Geologic Map of the South Side of the Moon. USRA Lunar and Planetary Institute.

All other images are courtesy of Morphocode



1. Bertin, J. (1967). “Sémiologie Graphique: Les diagrammes, les réseaux, les cartes”. Gauthier-Villars, Paris.
2. Brewer, C. A. (1999). “Color Use Guidelines For Data Representation”. Proceedings Of The Section On Statistical Graphics, American Statistical Association.
3. Friendly, M. (2008). “The Golden Age of Statistical Graphics“. Statistical Science 2008, Vol. 23, No. 4, 502–535
4. Imhof, E. (2007). “Cartographic Relief Presentations” , English ed. ESRI Press, Redlands, CA
5. Marey, E.]. (1885). “La Méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales et principalement en physiologie et en médecine“, G. Masson, Paris, p.73: “Toujours il arrive a des effets saisissants, mais nulle part la representation graphique de la marche des armees n’atteint ce degre de brutale eloquence qui semble defier la plume de l’historien.”
6. Playfair, W. (2005). The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary, Edited and Introduced by Howard Wainer and Ian Spence, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.


NYC Sidewalk Cafés


We have recently explored Sidewalk Cafés Licensing Data, provided by the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs.
We’ve used mapbox-gl-js to create an interactive story line, that will highlight different locations and aspects of the data.

A “sidewalk café” is a portion of a legal restaurant that operates on the public sidewalk. There are three main types of sidewalk cafés – enclosed, unenclosed and small unenclosed sidewalk cafés. A combined license is also available for cafés located on corners, where zoning regulations for different types intersect. Currently, there are over 1500 active sidewalk cafés in New York city with the majority of them located in Manhattan. Unenclosed sidewalk cafés happen to be the most popular type and represent 75 percent of the total number of active sidewalk cafés in the city.





Unlike traditional coffeehouses that have been present in urban culture for centuries, the sidewalk cafe is a relatively recent phenomenon, whose popularity crossed the boundaries of the Old Continent and made its way to the USA in the 20th century – not without controversy .

In 1929, New York City started legally allowing unenclosed sidewalk cafes. Soon after, in 1933, they were banished by H. Warren Hubbert, Manhattan’s commissioner of public works, and it wasn’t until the mid-1960’s that city officials began to endorse the spread of this continental touch. In the beginning of the 60’s there were around 30 sidewalk cafes in NYC, located mostly in Greenwich Village.




Currently, sidewalk cafes are regarded as neighborhood amenities that encourage social interactions and allow people to engage in street life or simply to enjoy the “sidewalk ballet“. Outdoor sitting is highly valued by urban planners and is considered to have a positive impact on street vitality. Since sidewalks represent a huge fraction of the city’s public spaces, they are – as Jan Gehl puts it – the very reason for creating sidewalk cafes.



Visualizing Pedestrian Activity in the City of Melbourne


Pedestrian activity is a direct reflection of the city’s livability and vibrancy. The variety of factors inclining our travelling preferences in favour of walking, range from access to transit and population density to perceived pedestrian safety and street design. Currently, there isn’t a standard approach to measuring walkability. Nevertheless, it is a common belief that a compact and well-connected urban environment, offering a diverse mixture of uses is fundamental to get people to walk.

According to Jeff Speck‘s “General Theory of Walkability“, the first thing you need to do is offer citizens a reason to walk and then make the walk safe, comfortable and interesting. Julie Campoli, an other urban designer with a passion for walkable cities, believes that there are six key elements to the perfect pedestrian environment: Design; Diversity; Density; Distance to Transit; Destination Accessibility and Parking.

As the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne is already exhibiting good results when considering these indicators, yet walkability patterns vary from one location to another. In the last couple of months we explored data from the city’s pedestrian counting system to visualize movement patterns and network interdependencies. Here is a sneak peak of the project’s current state.

Above: Total number of pedestrians counted by year, including busiest day and busiest location. Image by Morphocode.

Melbourne’s Pedestrian Counting System

Melbourne is considered to be the most liveable city in the world according to The 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit ranking. The city is also exemplary for its mindful use of data in urban analytics and for its Open Data Policy allowing simple access to Council-owned information.

In the last six years, local authorities has installed 44 sensors to measure pedestrian activity at strategic locations throughout the city. Each sensor is installed on a street pole or under an awning to cover a pedestrian counting zone on the footpath below. The counts are updated regularly and are published in .csv file format on Melbourne’s Open Data Portal. The raw data is a tabular representation of hourly numbers of pedestrians at each measurement point. We used this open dataset and a visualization technique called “Horizon Graph” to reveal movement patterns in a seamless urban electrocardiogram.

Above: Location of pedestrian counting sensors in the City of Melbourne. Image by Morphocode.


For more than 30 years the City of Melbourne has been transforming the municipality’s walking environment. Melbourne’s iconic Bourke Street Mall opened officially in 1983. Guided by the Places for People studies in 1994 and 2005, the City of Melbourne has widened footpaths, laid high quality pavements, encouraged outdoor dining and reduced traffic signal cycle times to support improvements to public transport to make Melbourne a more attractive place to be.
City of Melbourne Walking Plan (2014-2017)


The average block size in the Central Business District of Melbourne is 200 by 100 meters. This iconic layout was named after Robert Hoddle, who conceived it in 1837: initially a square grid, the plan was subsequently subdivided in smaller rectangular blocks and still preserves the strong hierarchy of the street system. The Hoddle Grid covers the area from Flinders Street to Queen Victoria Market, and from Spencer Street to Spring Street. Melbourne’s numerous Arcades and Lanes are an important feature of the city’s cultural heritage and provide through-block pedestrian shortcuts that increase connectivity. The majority of the pedestrian counting sensors, installed by the municipality of Melbourne are located in the Central Business District and provide a better understanding of how people navigate through the area.


Above: Visualization of pedestrian activity in March 2015 shows significant spikes accross the city during a 3-day Moomba Festival. Image by Morphocode.

Visualizing Pedestrian Activity with Horizon Graphs

To build the visualization we’ve used Cubism.js – a d3 plugin for visualizing time series. The library was developed by Mike Bostock and is built around a visualization technique called Horizon Graph. Horizon graphs are similar to traditional area charts, but allow to fit the same data into less space while preserving resolution. They are often used in data dashboards to monitor real-time activity such as CPU usage and stock exchange data.

Cubism.js comes with built-in support for real-time sources such as Cube and Graphite. It is not well-suited for static data sources such as Melbourne’s Pedestrian Counts dataset. We had to implement a custom Metric to load the pedestrian data from past periods and then plot them on the canvas using a custom Context.

Above: Increasing data density while preserving resolution – how to read a Horizon Graph of pedestrian activity. Image by Morphocode.


Above: The 5-minute walk. Access to a wide variety of amenities and services within a short distance can increase pedestrian flows and encourage people to walk. Image by Morphocode.

The 5-minute walk

During the research we also explored access to different types of amenities within the Central Business District of Melbourne, where the majority of the pedestrian counting sensors are located. The map above shows access to basic amenities around the sensor at Alfred Place – a pedestrian shortcut, cutting through the width of a block. Plotted dots visualize the density of 5 types of elements:
 Landmarks and places of interest
Public Transport stops
Outdoor furniture
 Public memorials and sculptures
 Drinking fountains

The walking distance standard has slight variations across the globe but it is considered that a person would cover 80 meters within a minute of walking. This is the reason why a 5-minute walk is usually represented as a circle of 400-meter radius.

Above: Sensor profiles show variations in pedestrian activity accross different types of locations. Image by Morphocode.

Places for People: Melbourne’s long-term commitment to walkability

The Places for People study began in 1993 when the city invited Professor Jan Gehl for the first time to assess the quality of public space and public life in Melbourne. The study was reassessed in 2005 and again, another decade later, in 2015. This lengthy data collection period has provided rigorous insight into how the city performs at a local, everyday level for people and continues to inform urban strategies in their long-term commitment to increasing the levels of pedestrian accessibility.


“Places for People focuses on walking as the primary mode of transport in the city.”
 City Strategy and Place, 2015


Through the years, a variety of measures have been undertaken to make the urban environment more appealing for walking – the amount of footpath space has been expanded by nearly 15 per cent since 2007; a speed limit of 40 km/h has been set in the central city; numerous public spaces have been renovated and through-block laneways have been enhanced and converted to active uses.

Currently, walking accounts for 66 per cent of all trips within the municipality of Melbourne.



What’s next?

We are currently developing an interactive version of the data visualization that will allow you to explore pedestrian activity by location and time. The project will be published soon on our website. You can subscribe to our newsletter for more updates.

Hello Munich!


As we already mentioned on twitter and facebook, we will spend the next couple of months in Munich, working as guest artists in PLATFORM. The concept that we are currently developing is called Data Urbanism and will be presented in an exhibition on the 21st of October.


Above: W;HERE by Duncan Swann, exhibition opening. Image courtesy: Vivi D’Angelo for PLATFORM

is a cultural service agency for the creative sector, which develops and implements cultural concepts for the city, public institutions and companies. In particular, it anchors the creative processes of design, art, architecture and theories in urban development processes and a lively dialogue between business, culture and the public are close at heart. This is a pilot project of the city of Munich and is situated in a 2000 square meter floor of a building in a former industrial area.


Meanwhile we are residing at Streitfeld where the afternoons could not be more delightful!

We will try to post updates on our work as often as possible and occasionally send newsletters with more details on our upcoming exhibition!

Cover image courtesy of PLATFORM.




Data Urbanism



In 2007, the global urban population reached the 50% threshold and for the first time in history exceeded the global rural population. The same year, the first iPhone was released and set the tone for a smartphone revolution that changed the way we experience, navigate and interact with our immediate urban environment. We are now living in increasingly data-rich environments where open data platforms allow us to access, collect and analyse information about the city. As urban sensors become more and more ubiquitous and spatial information even more abundant, data vizualisation allows a critical evaluation of active policies and city services by transforming otherwise hidden patterns into visual arguments.

The amount of data generated by our daily activities and interactions will increase persistently, as digital devices continue to permeate our lives. And while we use those devices as a central access point to information, the data we generate on a daily basis — either directly or as a by-product of our social activities — is often associated with contextual meta-information about location, usage and people. In other words, data gives a valuable insight into both our social interactions and the environment that staged those interactions. Furthermore there is a strong tendency to open data repositories that were once locked within government agencies. Open access to information, as well as the emergence of low-cost or free analysis web tools, allows citizens to look for patterns in government activity or to use data analysis to advocate for change.

We refer to the process of making urban data visible, accessible and actionable as Data Urbanism.
Data Urbanism suggests an iterative approach to urban planning that starts with harnessing the potential of open spatial data by enabling hands-on interaction with it and transfoming the invisible bits into a coherent exploratory mechanism.



Cities: The Global Urban Transition

The trends of urbanization differ across the globe. In 2014, Latin America and the Caribbean and Northern America had the highest levels of urbanization, at or above 80%. Europe remains in third place with 73% of its population currently living in urban areas and is expected to reach 80% urban by 2050. Between now and 2050, 90% of the expected increase in the world’s urban population will take place in the urban areas of Africa and Asia [1]. In other words, the projected urban growth will be concentrated in cities in the developing world where the correlation of the rate of urbanization with economic growth has been weaker. Expansion of urban areas is also on average twice as fast as urban population with significant consequences for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change [2].



Above: Global urban population growth. Data Source: United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision. Image by Morphocode.

Cities were once defined by Jane Jacobs as “problems in organized complexity”. Today, they are seen as engines of innovation and growth on a global scale which explains the general shift in urban planning thought from problems of equity to problems of efficiency [3]. But the problems of cities go beyond mere benchmarking of sustainability indicators. Social and economic issues in cities are what planners call “wicked problems”. Due to their complexity, they remain computationally intractable and cannot be solved in a top-down fashion by a central planner regardless the amount of data available [4].

Above: Global urban population growth is propelled by the growth of cities of all sizes. Data Source: United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision. Image by Morphocode.

As rapid urbanization and advances in ICT are shaping the course of contemporary culture and society, the “Smart City” agenda is also gaining momentum. Focused mainly on issues of efficiency and optimal performance, this vision of the city suggests that every human action is quantifiable and therefore predictable. A technocratic take on urban governance that often fails to acknowledge the wider social effects of culture and politics shaping the complexities of urban life. Aside from transforming our cities into optimal systems and turning data into a huge commodity market, the smart tech sector has fewer things to say about the importance of civic engagement.


Making Data Visible, Accessible and Actionable

Data science can be understood in terms of seven stages: acquire, parse, filter, mine, represent, refine, and interact [5]. The first step, acquire, is associated with an open data release. This is a critical stage allowing civic hackers and data journalists to harness the revelatory power of data repositories. The other six steps, however, remain an impossible leap for the average citizen.  These steps are strongly associated with the practice of citizen-centered design.[6]

In the best case scenario open data is first released in machine readable format, say a .csv file or a .json file. Even then it is rarely usable by the majority of citizens as making sense of it requires a certain amount of technical skills. Few people, even within the city administration, are capable of transforming data repositories into visual elements of spatio-temporal order. This is where the open data movement is still in its infacy. And as we fail to reveal the full potential of open data, more people fail to recognize it as an integral part of their rights as citizens. In order to bridge the gap between open data and civic society data should be made visible, accessible and actionable for a variety of audiences.

Above: Mapping building permits in Sofia. Image by Morphocode

Public data is often locked behind proprietary web interfaces. This prevents the re-use of data and stops citizens from exploring, interacting with and making sense of available datasets. This is the case of the Building Permits in Sofia – a public register that keeps track of all recent building permits issued by the municipality of Sofia. While the data is publicly accessible, it is impossible to download or export it in a machine readable format. The raw data is essentially locked behind a single access point – the clunky interface of the web application. This prevents the re-use of data to create maps and visualizations; to ask questionts and search for answers in the data. As we mapped and visualized this single dataset a variety of questions, concerning the built environment emerged: How is the urban landscape changing and what trends are expected in the years to come?;  What are the dynamics of local businessesHow often does public space renovation happen around the city? How is public money spent? etc. (More updates on this project soon).


Data Visualization: Revealing Urban Insights

When Scottish engineer and economist William Playfair invented graphical statistics in the end of the 18th century, no one assumed the impact they would have on modern information design. His early attempts to analyse data from England’s import-export statistics at that time are exemplary for their visual literacy and simplicity. The foundations of graphic representation: line graphs; bar charts of economic data; pie charts and circle graphs – all originated at that time and still remain some of the basic elements of data visualization. More recently the rise of data journalism has brought a new light to the importance of information graphics in contemporary culture, where reading habits are shaped by the ubiquity of digital devices. Collecting data is important, but what’s even more important is connecting them to a specific context and revealing networks of interdependencies. And the best way to convey this type of information is through means of visual communication.



Above: Visualizing pollution patterns. The data is collected from various sensors deployed in 7 cities around the globe and is part of the Data Canvas initiative. Visit project

Visualizing urban data is a critical task as cities continue to dominate global concerns about climate change, economic prosperity and social equity. Interactive visualizations reveal how cities perform and how people interact with the urban environment by exposing the underlying logic of demographic processes, mobility patterns and digitalized daily transactions. In that sense they are the key to maximizing data efficiency and upgrading urban governance to a more open and agile model. As we strive for more compact, connected and coordinated urban growth, visualizing the dynamics of urban processes becomes both an integral part of city governance and an instrument for civic engagement. Urban data has been explored widely across the globe and the resulting outcomes differ in scale and type: from large scale projects for real-time observation such as the IBM Intelligent Operation Center in Rio de Janeiro, to interactive urban dashboards, mobile applications and hackathons.

In all cases the main challenges for generating dialogue through urban data visualizations consist of choosing the right type of visual strategy and achieving high standarts for data accuracy.






1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/352).
2. IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T.Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
3. Batty, M. (2012). Lecture: Smart Cities & Big Data How We Can Make Cities More Resilient[PDF]. University University College College Dublin
4. Bettencourt, L.M.A. (2013) The Kind of Problem a City is. Santa Fe institute Working Paper. Paper #: 2013-03-008.
5. Fry, B. (2004). Computational Information Design. PhD Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
6. Harrel, C.(2013). The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship: Data and Design in Innovative Citizen Experiences. In Goldstein, B. and Dyson, L.(Eds.). Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation. San Francisco, CA. Code for America Press.




The 2015 Laureate: In memoriam of Frei Otto

 Frei Otto was named this year’s Pritzker winner shortly after he passed away on March 09, 2015. For the first time, the Pritzker Award Laureate was named posthumously. A long-due nomination to acknowledge the scientific and artistic work of one of the pioneers of light construction. Traditionally, every Pritzker Laureate holds an acceptance speech – a personal statement on how they relate to Architecture and what they stand for.

Frei Otto is the sole Pritzker Laureate to never present an acceptance speech, though his body of work is more of an eloquent statement.




Philip Johnson: 1979 Pritzker Laureate

” In this century alone, we have Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Lutyens, Mies van der Rohe, and our young architects may be better than them. ” 


Luis Barragán: 1980 Pritzker Laureate

“Nostalgia is the poetic awareness of our personal past, and since the artist’s own past is the mainspring of his creative potential, the architect must listen and heed his nostalgic revelations.”


James Stirling: 1981 Pritzker Laureate

“The `high architectural aspirations’ achieved in some of our earlier projects were in a sense accidents—the clients were not necessarily expecting a work of art in addition to a well functioning building—but they got buildings which have ever since been overrun with hordes of architectural students pounding through, something the users didn’t anticipate or now appreciate.”


Kevin Roche: 1982 Pritzker Laureate

“That Architecture is an art we have the evidence of history; that it is an art in our time we cannot yet judge.”


Ieoh Ming Pei: 1983 Pritzker Laureate

“The chase for the new, from the singular perspective of style, has too often resulted in only the arbitrariness of whim, the disorder of caprice.”


Richard Meier: 1984 Pritzker Laureate

“My goal is presence, not illusion.”


Hans Hollein: 1985 Pritzker Laureate

“As an architect, I am responsible to the needs of man and society.”


Gottfried Böhm: 1986 Pritzker Laureate

“I don’t overestimate the influence of architecture on people, but I am sure that the physical alienation of our cities contributes to our inability to live together harmoniously.”


Kenzo Tange: 1987 Pritzker Laureate

“The development of so-called “intelligent buildings” is a natural consequence and today’s society will demand that whole districts and cities themselves become “intelligent” in the same way as the individual buildings.”


Oscar Niemeyer: 1988 Pritzker Laureate

“First were the thick stone walls, the arches, then the domes and vaults—of the architect, searching out for wider spaces.”


Frank Gehry: 1989 Pritzker Laureate

“Architecture is a small piece of this human equation, but for those of us who practice it, we believe in its potential to make a difference, to enlighten and to enrich the human experience, to penetrate the barriers of misunderstanding and provide a beautiful context for life’s drama.”


Aldo Rossi: 1990 Pritzker Laureate

“I have always felt that my architecture is timeless.”


Robert Venturi: 1991 Pritzker Laureate

“And as a building is designed from the inside out and the outside in, so, one can say, is an architect designed in that way—that is, his own development as an artist can work through his development inside—through his intuition, ordered by means of analysis and discipline, but also through his development outside, via the influence of persons and places.”


Alvaro Siza: 1992 Pritzker Laureate

“The various circumstances that surround architectural commissions, with their stigmas of specialization led me until recently to project above all—in a fragmentary way—the urban tissue made of apparently banal elements that shape the majority of the area of any city or territory.”


Fumihiko Maki: 1993 Pritzker Laureate

“Having witnessed personally this transformation from a garden city to an industrialized city within the span of a mere fifty years, Tokyo presents for me a rich mental landscape at an almost surrealistic level.”


Christian de Portzamparc: 1994 Pritzker Laureate

“And because architecture is a public art, architects, unlike other artists, do not enjoy complete personal creative freedom.”


Tadao Ando: 1995 Pritzker Laureate

“My hope has been and continues to be, not only to solve realistic problems, but also to pursue the ideal by overlaying speculative imaginings.”


Rafael Moneo: 1996 Pritzker Laureate

“So many architects now seek to manifest motion instead of stability, the ephemeral instead of the perpetual, the fragmented instead of the whole and the fictitious instead of the real.”


Sverre Fehn: 1997 Pritzker Laureate

“My most important journey was perhaps into the past, in the confrontation with the Middle Age, when I built a museum among the ruins of the Bishops’ Fortress at Hamar.”


Renzo Piano: 1998 Pritzker Laureate

“Architects have to live on the frontier, and every so often they have to cross it, to see what is on the other side.”


Norman Foster: 1999 Pritzker Laureate

“But looking back with the perspective of nearly fourty years, I can see that our practice has been inspired by these polarities of action and research, which means trying to ask the right questions with an insatiable curiosity about how things work, whether they’re organizations or mechanical systems.”


Rem Koolhaas: 2000 Pritzker Laureate

“Fifty years ago, the architectural scene was not about a unique individual, the genius, but about the group, the movement.”


Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron: 2001 Pritzker Laureate

“Paradoxically, the box, conceivably the simplest and most basic architectural shape had acquired the value of its own like a stylistic device And that was exactly what we always tried so assiduously to avoid.”


Glenn Murcutt: 2002 Pritzker Laureate

“I have always believed in the act of discovery rather than creativity.”


Jørn Utzon: 2003 Pritzker Laureate

“From practicing in a small Nordic country with little possibility of working outside Denmark, even
though inspired by a multitude of other persons and cultures, he experienced that the world suddenly
opened to him in a way, unheard of at the time.” (Jan Utzon speaking on behalf of his father, 2003 Pritzker Laureate)


Zaha Hadid: 2004 Pritzker Laureate

“Studying the revolutionary Russian work I realized how Modern architecture built upon the break-through achieved by abstract art as the conquest of a previously unimaginable realm of creative freedom.”


Thom Mayne: 2005 Pritzker Laureate

“I am captivated by what emerges and develops from the smallest piece of information as it absorbs the huge number of realities that come to impact it.”


Paulo Mendes da Rocha: 2006 Pritzker Laureate

“We must have an awareness of our human dimension, the dimension of human beings who are part of nature and architecture, and who are linked to the establishment of space vis a vis nature.”


Richard Rogers: 2007 Pritzker Laureate

“I have always believed that a humane and progressive architecture is one that creates beauty out of


Jean Nouvel: 2008 Pritzker Laureate

“To me, one of the missions of specific architecture is to complete, to re-orient, to diversify, to modify
and to imagine what the generic architectures can never imagine: the lifetimes to which they will give
shelter. “


Peter Zumthor: 2009 Pritzker Laureate

“And then comes the really hard task when I have to take care that nobody destroys my first image.”


Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa: 2010 Pritzker Laureate

“Looking back, one of the major projects that defined our direction was the design for the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa.”


Eduardo Souto de Moura: 2011 Pritzker Laureate

“What we needed was a clear, simple and pragmatic language to rebuild the country and a culture – nothing better than the “forbidden” Modern Movement to step up to that challenge.”


Wang Shu: 2012 Pritzker Laureate

“In all of my architectural design activities I have constantly asked myself the following questions: How can an architecture founded on craftsmanship survive in today’s world?”


Toyo Ito: 2013 Pritzker Laureate

“My work has always been about tearing down this wall that separates modern architecture from nature and the local community, in order to create architecture that is open to both.”


Shigeru Ban: 2014 Pritzker Laureate

“I believe that even the temporary structures have to be beautiful and comfortable.”


Frei Otto: 2015 Pritzker Laureate




” Throughout his life, Frei Otto has produced imaginative, fresh, unprecedented spaces and constructions. He has also created knowledge. Herein resides his deep influence: not in forms to be copied, but through the paths that have been opened by his research and discoveries. His contributions to the field of architecture are not only skilled and talented, but also generous.For his visionary ideas, inquiring mind, belief in freely sharing knowledge and inventions, his collaborative spirit and concern for the careful use of resources, the 2015 Pritzker Architecture Prize is awarded to Frei Otto.” Jury Citation


Small Multiples: visual explorations in architecture and information design

Variations and local comparisons

The term Small Multiples was introduced and popularized by Eduard Tufte, who defined them as “graphical depictions of variable information that share context, but not content“. Small Multiples allow the comparative visual display of multivariable data that would otherwise be difficult to present in a single chart. Since all the elements share the same design and scale, once you’ve learned how to read a single element you can apply your knowledge to all the rest. Simplicity is crucial in order for the reader to focus on changes in the data.

Here are some of our favourite examples of the use of small multiples. For a wider selection you can chek out our Pinterest board.



GitHut by Carlo Zapponi. The image shows the Top active languages in GitHub

GitHut is a project by Carlo Zapponi that attempts to visualize and explore the complexity of the universe of programming languages used across the repositories hosted on GitHub. The quantitative data used in GitHut is collected from GitHub Archive and is updated on a quarterly basis.


From First Published to Masterpieces_Accurat

“From first published to masterpieces” by Accurat

From first published to masterpieces” visualizes the authors of the 100 best english novels as ranked by the Modern Library. Ordered from the earliest success to the last one, authors are represented through circles showing their life span and the moment of their debut novel and consecutively published masterpieces. The visualization contains also information about the author’s hometown and novels’ ranking. It is designed and produced by Accurat and was originally published in italian on La Lettura.


Small multiple glyphs showing connections to other lines. Image from Shanghai Metro Flow project by Till Nagel and Benedikt Groß

Shanghai Metro Flow is a project by Till Nagel and Benedikt Groß that visualizes the pulse of Shanghai’s subway network – one of the busiest and fastest growing rapid transit systems in the world. The project consists of an animation with three network visualizations, and an accompanying infographic poster showing subway line details. Connections between different lines are visualized via small multiple glyphs that take the shape of a 12h clock so that each line is always displayed at the same angle. You can read the accompanying paper “Shanghai Metro Flow – Multiple perspectives into a subway system“.


11. Kisho Nenkan 1984. Meteorological Almanac

1,826 days of Tokyo weather history. Source: “Envisioning Information” by Edward Tufte

This high-information density graphic is a classical example of a small multiple. It visualizes a concentrated history of Tokyo’s climate: a full decade of observations by town, year, month, and day. The 1,826 days of weather history range from Clear – Clear; Fair  – Fair;  small img – Cloudy to Light Rain – Light Rain; Rain – Rain and  Snow – Snow. The image originates from a 1984 Meteorological Almanac by The Meteorology Agency and Japan Meteorology Association. It was redrawn and published in Edward Tufte’s  “Envisioning Information“.


People on Staircase in Motion_Jerome Marhak

“People on Staircase in Motion” by Jerome Marshak.

People on Staircase in Motion” by Jerome Marshak is an art piece that includes 5,000 single images taken in the course of a 6-week study of pedestrian activity on MOMA strairs in June and July, 2012.


“Small multiples, whether tabular or pictorial, move to the heart of visual reasoning – to see, distinguish, choose. Their multiplied smallness enforces local comparisons within our eyespan, relying on an active eye to select and make contrasts rather than on bygone memories of images scattered over pages and pages.”

E. Tufte


Small Multiples in Architecture

Diagrammatic reasoning and visual representation of multiple variations in a given context are fundamental parts of the architect’s toolkit. The study of a single element and the scope of its alternatives can result in an entire spatial strategy. Such is the case, for example, in Junya Ishigami’s KAIT workshop where the position of the 305 columns, non of which identical in orientation and proportion, give rise to countless circulation paths and diverse environments.



Little Gardens by Junya Ishigami

“Little Gardens” and KAIT workshop: visual explorations and spatial strategies.

If you browse through the pages of JA78 you will come across a couple of Junya Ishigami‘s projects who differ largely in scale but share the same level of elaboration and care for the detail. On one side – 384 miniature gardens all the size of a fingertip; on the other – an unit study for the 305 slender columns of Kangawa Institute of Technology workshop. They all coexist peacefully on two adjacent pages and reveal a spatial strategy that blurs the boundaries between the notions of space and landscape. Meanwhile the graphical display of the their variability enables direct comparison of all the instances in each context – an approach that is intrinsic to Tufte’s definition of Small Multiples.

“Little Gardens” is a miniature installation that fits on the top of a single table. It was designed in 2007 as a part of an exhibition during Tokyo Design Week when five japanese architects, including Junya Ishigami, were invited to create an unique piece of art around the theme of a “box”. According to Ishigami, each miniature element works both as a little flower vase and as a space container – a tiny “exhibition room” for pressed flowers. Thoroughly catalogued and labeled, the innumerable containers are displayed as an entity on a round table where they form spatial clusters and ultimately – a whole landscape.



junya.ishigami+associates, little gardens 2007-2008. Photo by Takumi Ota, collection of Tatsumi Sato


In these two projects, I prioritized neither “spaces” nor “landscapes”.

Junya Ishigami


KAIT Workshop-unit study

KAIT workshop by Junya Ishigami. Image source: JA78

Kanagawa Institute of Technology workshop (also known as a “White forest in a grey field”) is Junya Ishigami’s first realized building. The 2000 square-meter workshop hosts 14 loosely defined open spaces, dedicated to diverse activities. Within their ambiguous boundaries one will come accross four multipurpose work spaces; a small supply shop; specialized areas for pottery, woodworking, computer graphics, metal casting, and other.

The act of movement was treated with special care:


 “In architecture, plans determine the flow of circulation through spaces. Yet, when there are various routes to choose from, people generally use those they like best. The choice may be a reflection of taste or of one’s own rationality. Always passing along the same route may lend a certain sense of ease. On occasion, one chooses another route introducing a change of pace. One wonders just how many different routes are available within this building.”

J. Ishigami



Unit study for KAIT workshop. Image source: JA78

Ambiguity as a spatial strategy: column permutations

The spatial strategy for KAIT workshop is entirely based on the seemingly random distribution of structural elements whose exact location and orientation took years to determine. Rigorous studies in the course of the design process resulted in 290 variations of a quadrilateral unit section ranging from 16mmx145mm for the thinnest tension member to 63mmx90mm for the thickest stress member. Column permutations were tested iteratively during that phase using varied techniques: from hand drawings and CAD to scale models – more than 1000 in total.

The columns defined both the structural and the spatial configuration discribed by Junya Ishigami as “a multitude of places within the same space”.


The architect adopted the notion of ambiguity and conceived the building as if planning a forest. He introduced infinite variations and possibilities of walking paths and shaped a space that is percieved differently at any given point within the interior. The final bulding resulted from a continual process of fine-tuning multiple variables: from the section and orientation of the pillars to their variation in density and load-bearing capacity.



Topological Grid by Shohei Matsukawa

This last example is a concept by Shohei Matsukawa that proposes the use of a generalized algorithm – called Topological Grid in the design phase of an architecural project. Topological grid is a design system: it enables dynamic searching among finite possible solutions – each of them adapted to suit the given cotext.




Seijo apartments, SANAA: study

Density, Scale and Type

The need to overcome data complexities while working with a multitude of constraints and parameters in an architectural program is what makes small multiples the best solution in many cases. They enable pattern recognition while introducing direct comparison and visual measure of variations. Besides all that, there are three notions built-in the logic of small multiples that make them extremely relevant for the visual display of architectural studies: the notions of density, scale and type.


“At the heart of quantitative reasoning is a single question: Compared to what?
Small multiple designs, multivariate and data bountiful, answer directly by visually enforcing comparisons of changes, of the differences among objects, of the scope of alternatives. For a wide range of problems in data presentation, small multiples are the best design solution. ”

E. Tufte




Global Trends of Urbanization

Cities are the manifestation of the cultural, economic and social acceleration that we have experienced in our modern history. In 1950 about 2/3 of the population worldwide lived in rural settlements and 1/3 in urban settlements. By 2050, we will observe roughly the reverse distribution, with more than 6 billion people living in the messy, burgeoning athmosphere of urbanized areas.
According to the Sustainable Urbanization Policy Brief, urban centres currently occupy less than 5% of the world’s landmass. Nevertheless they account for around 70% of both global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission. Innovation in urban infrastrucure and technology is essential when addressing this issue. For instance, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by up to 1.5 billion CO2e annually by 2030, primarily through transformative change in transport systems in the world’s 724 largest cities[1].

Urban planning decisions and strategic design thinking in the context of rapid urbanization account for social equity, mobility patterns, global competitiveness and energy-efficiency. In that sense a brief comparison between Atlanta and Barcelona shows at a glance that cities with similar populations can have very different carbon emissions[2], depending on how the urban layout is conceived. With urban area of 4,280 km2, Atlanta’s carbon emissions are ten times higher than those in the city of Barcelona, whose built-up area is 162 km2. Both cities have population of about 2.5 million people.

Atlanta vs. Barcelona

Source: The New Climate Economy Report | Chapter 2 | Cities

As densities decline, city areas grow faster than city populations [3] and affect environmental sustainability at a local, regional and global scale. How we manage this unprecedented urban growth in the following years is likely to determine the outcome of our sustainability endeavours.


Percentage urban and location of urban agglomerations with at least 500,000 inhabitants, 2014

Percentage urban and location of urban agglomerations with at least 500,000 inhabitants, 2014. Source: UN | World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights

Between now and 2050, 90% of the expected increase in the world’s urban population will take place in the urban areas of Africa and Asia [4] . In other words the projected urban growth will be concentrated in cities in the developing world where the correlation of the rate of urbanization with economic growth has been weaker.

The global trends of urbanization in the first decades of the 21st century are significantly different from what we have experienced so far in terms of urban transition. Urbanization is taking place at lower levels of economic development and the majority of future urban population growth will take place in small- to medium-sized urban areas in developing countries. Expansion of urban areas is on average twice as fast as urban population with significant consequences for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change[5].


Global Urban Population Growth 1990-2030

Source: UN | World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights

According to this year’s United Nations report on World Urbanization we will observe the following trends:

  • Continuing population growth and urbanization are projected to add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050, with nearly 90% of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa.
  • The fastest growing urban agglomerations are medium-sized cities and cities with less than 1 million inhabitants located in Asia and Africa.
  • Most megacities and large cities are located in the global South.
  • Just three countries — India, China and Nigeria – together are expected to account for 37 per cent of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between 2014 and 2050. India is projected to add 404 million urban dwellers, China 292 million and Nigeria 212 millions.
  • Close to half of the world’s urban dwellers reside in relatively small settlements of less than 500,000 inhabitants, while only around 1/8 live in the 28 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants.
  • The number of mega-cities has nearly tripled since 1990; and by 2030, 41 urban agglomerations are projected to house at least 10 million inhabitants each.
  • Tokyo is projected to remain the world’s largest city in 2030 with 37 million inhabitants, followed closely by Delhi where the population is projected to rise swiftly to 36 million.


Contribution to the increase in urban population by country, 2014 to 2050

Contribution to the increase in urban population by country, 2014 to 2050. Source: UN | World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights

Urban scaling holds both the key to long-term sustainable development and irreversible damages to our planet. The expected increase in urban land cover during the first three decades of the 21st century will be greater than the cumulative urban expansion in all of human history [5]. These unprecedented rates of urbanization put enormous pressure on environmental sustainability thresholds and indicators. Tackling strategic components of urban form such as density levels, land use patterns and connectivity will have a major impact on the global economy and climate.




  1. The New Climate Economy Report. 2014.
  2. Bertaud, A. and Richardson, A.W., 2004. Transit and Density: Atlanta, the United States and Western Europe.
  3. Shlomo Angel, Making Room for a Planet of Cities
  4. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014).
    World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/352).
  5. [IPCC AR 5 WG3 Chapter 12]
  6. Sustainable Urbanization Policy Brief


Photo Courtesy of Leah Davies