For graduated astronomer Nadieh Bremer, creating data visualizations in celebration of the Hubble Space Telescope’s 30th anniversary in orbit was a dream come true. Located in a small town near Amsterdam, the data visualization designer was approached by Physics Today magazine with a dataset of all the science observations Hubble had done – more than 550,000 in total. Unsure of what exactly they wanted to visualise at that point, the project eventually became one of the biggest ones Nadieh had ever worked on and her proudest achievement in data visualization yet.
“It was almost like a personal project for which I was being paid,” Nadieh recalls. “Hubble’s amazing photos were one of the main reasons that I fell in love with astronomy in the first place, so I was beyond excited to work on this project. I spent a lot of time on it, way more than the budget allowed, because I was just having so much fun with the data. I really wanted to make it as special as I possibly could.”
The size of the dataset made it clear that the angles to visualise could be endless, so Nadieh cleaned the data and performed an extensive analysis before pitching four story ideas to the client. They settled on two static visualizations – a main one that would plot all of Hubble’s observations in the sky and highlight some of its most famous photos, and a companion piece that would reveal the diversity of the objects that Hubble has explored.
Physics Today was so enthusiastic about the main visual, which was originally only meant to appear on its website, that it was adapted and also published as a gate-fold poster in the magazine. (For detailed explanations on how Nadieh created both visualizations, see her extensive blog posts on the sky map with all of the observations and the different astronomy targets. Prints of the sky map are also available in her online shop.)
“I love having this treasure chest of possible stories and insights that I can tease out through data analysis and client conversations. I really pick apart the data and look at it from different sides.”
Uncovering the stories hidden in the data
Over the course of the last three years, Nadieh has carved out her own niche as an award-winning freelance designer of beautiful yet also effective and user-friendly data visualizations. Created with a combination of first class technical skills and a very creative mindset, the end result is utterly unique and memorable every single time.
One of Nadieh’s favourite parts of the work is exploring a dataset and discovering the stories within. Usually, the client has an idea of what they’d like Nadieh to focus on but – as was the case with the Hubble project – sometimes they invite her to really dive in and find interesting angles herself.
“I love having this treasure chest of possible stories and insights that I can tease out through data analysis and client conversations,” Nadieh explains. “I talk to the client to figure out the goal – what they’d like people to do, learn or get a feeling for when they see the visualization. Then I really pick apart the data and look at it from different sides.”
Nadieh uses statistics language R to prepare and analyse the data, which helps her build up a mental model of what it’s about, find the most interesting aspects that lend themselves to a visualization, and get a feeling for how it could be restructured.
Once Nadieh has a good understanding of the data and the goal has been decided on, she starts thinking about the basic visual form, a critical step in creating an effective visualization. She gets inspiration from Pinterest boards that she curates, which contain other data visualization work, colour palettes, visuals from space and natural history, spirograph art, and much more. Before she starts designing anything, she creates a client mood board and adds everything that could be relevant for the project.
She also takes the dataset itself into account for the design. For example, the visualizations for a series of data art posters that Nadieh recently designed for Sony Music were inspired by the aesthetic of the traditional gold record. The pieces use data from Spotify and YouTube streams, chart entries and the audio characteristics of the songs itself to present each song’s data-based “fingerprint”.
Behind the scenes of Nadieh’s design process
After preparing the data, Nadieh then enters the design phase. She draws rough sketches – either with pen and paper or the Tayasui Sketches app on the iPad – to explore possible visual directions. Circles feature heavily in Nadieh’s visualizations, as do vibrant colours.
It’s this creative part of figuring out the visuals and seeing them come to life in a way that fits the data, goal and topic that Nadieh enjoys the most. She spends hours experimenting and tweaking the design to make the final visualization both aesthetically pleasing and effective.
“The reason I only create very rough outlines at the beginning is that data visualization stands and falls with the data itself,” Nadieh points out. “You can have a great idea but when you plug in the data it sometimes doesn’t work at all, because of outliers in the data or other quirks that you hadn’t considered during the design process. When you work with big datasets, you can only guess at the start.”