The quest to find all Birds of Paradise

TheOur December 2012 issue features the story of the truly amazing quest of Cornell ornithologist Edwing Scholes and biologist/photographer Tim Laman to find and photograph all 39 species of birds of paradise, perhaps the most spectacularly adorned family of birds in the world. Birds of paradise inhabit Papua New Guinea and parts of Australia. They are known for the flamboyant, sometimes bizarre and colorful plumage and other ornaments males use, along with some nice dance moves, to woo, entice and impress females in elaborate mating rituals. Many of the birds had never been photographed in the wild before.

Laman and Scholes made 18 expeditions over 8 years, visiting over 50 different sites to document the birds. And they succeeded.
It was clear we would need a graphic to explain how these creatures, which show wildly diverse morphological traits, were related to each other (often a bird is more closely related to one that looks entirely different from a similar-looking one). It was also important to document the range of each of the species, as they occupy very well defined niches at different elevation levels.
Senior Graphics Editor Fernando Baptista, Graphics Specialist Maggie Smith and freelance researcher Fanna Gebreyesus teamed up on this one to create this beautiful 3-page gatefold (click on any image in this post for a larger version):

Birds of Paradise_Final

The graphic show 15 birds illustrated by Fernando in the best tradition of natural history illustration. Each of them represents one of the 15 genera that groups birds of paradise. We show the family relationships, relative scale and a little chart gives additional information about the altitude range of each species in any given genus.


At the bottom, we mapped the elevation range of the different species  as well as all the expedition sites since the research started in 2004.


Here is the opener spread for the story, nicely designed by our Design Director David Whitmore. With abundant food and no predators, birds of paradise’s male appearance has evolved to really fantastic levels.


And here are all 39 species in the wild:


Fernando’s initial sketches were created for a book that the Nat Geo Society was preparing, but we knew we would eventually produce a graphic with a similar format in the magazine too. Here we see a first attempt at organizing the birds in a rather random but aesthetically pleasing design.


Fernando’s next sketch tries to bring more order by organizing the birds by size in a curved shape.


But conversations with the scientists made clear it was important to document how the different species related to each other at the taxonomy level, as much of it it was new science. That information shouldn’t be limited to the tiny inset chart. In this version the connecting branches of the family tree are not real…


Here they are real. Grouping the birds by size defeated the purpose of showing taxonomic relationships. The lines in this failed sketch show how the merely aesthetic decision would trump clear understanding.

4 sketch

Here we finally see a rough that approximates the final approach, including the map. Birds are grouped with their most closely related species. See the amazing size differences.

_RH Gate Template

Later on, we tried to use a chart to connect the map and the family tree by plotting the altitude range of each species. But it felt disconnected from both the map and the main graphic, creating a third layer of complexity rather than connecting the two existing components of the page.

In this version you can also see how Fernando played with the poses of the birds to avoid the stiff, field-guide feel of the previous sketch, where all of them were looking to the left in the same pose. This version is more fluid and natural. Fernando tweaked many of the poses, rotated heads and kept making changes through the entire process.

6 sketch

So Fernando decided to include the elevation chart below each one of the bird illustrations, indicating the elevation range of each of the birds. The mountain pictogram containing each chart added a bit of immediacy to the concept of elevation.

7 sketch

Here is some of the reference collected by Fernando to draw one of the birds. In most cases he had numerous photos by Tim Laman and additional reference. For those never photographed before, Tim’s photos were all the existing reference. We worked closely with Tim and Edwin, a reputed ornithologist, sending sketches back and forth.

reference art

Fernando’s process involves a relatively tight but light line pencil drawing (top left), a layer of watercolor with the main tones (top right), and finally a considerable amount of enhancements and shading done in Photoshop (bottom left). In this particular bird, Fernando changed the orientation of the head at the last-minute to create more dynamism.

process art2

Maggie started the map with a base map developed by the Maps Division of the Society (a group separate from the magazine’s cartographers) for the book. In most cases and since we need to deal with custom thematic layers of content directly from the sources, we develop our own custom maps in the magazine using software like ArcGIS, Natural Scene Designer and others. The Maps Division will generally use the cartographic database of the Society to develop products like the National Geographic Atlas.


Below are several iterations of the main map. The initial version was rotated in the page for a more horizontal shape, larger size and a better fit, but we would ultimately prefer to keep the true north orientation and we thought the more diagonal shape made it more active. We tried multiple ways of linking the altitude range levels in the map to the species illustrated on top, but attempts like the chart shown here with the blue bars was ultimately considered too complex. It would slow down the comprehension of the graphic rather than helping it.
The second version shows a combination of shaded relief and contour lines, but the different values of each color from the highlights/shadows in the shaded relief made it hard to relate colors in the key to colors on the map. The detail was also a bit noisy.
The final version had simplified relief included nice and gentle pencil-made touches by Fernando to give islands texture around the edges.


The locator map went through several rounds of improvements as well.


iPAD The graphic was completely rethought for the iPad version of the magazine. Since we wanted the art and maps to shine at a good size in the screen, we would break the content of the graphics into different pieces. Graphics Specialist Daniela Santamariña did most of the hard production work on the project.

Once scaled for optimum legibility, text takes a  very large amount of real estate on the iPad. One of the things we tend to do with the larger text paragraph that serves as introduction for most maps and graphics is to use it on a cover page for the interactive, along with an illustration.


We broke down the birds by taxonomic relationships as we did in print, but in smaller groups to enjoy the nice art. A miniature version of the entire tree serves as a key. As we did in the print version, the birds are always compared to the ghosted image of an American crow, a bird of well-known size that shares relatively recent common ancestors with birds of paradise.



The maps were rethought to add significant value by showing the extent and elevation range of each of the 39 species. The user can choose any of the birds in the photo grid below to enter a page with information about it.


Each page also included a reference to the conservation status of each bird, and in most cases audio with its call.


The photos in the story are really stunning. The iPad edition featured a video showing Tim’s preparation for the photo shoot.


Watch it here:

On the IPhone edition, we decided only a simplified range map would have enough legibility on the tiny screen. We often create interactive versions of graphics for the iPhone with the Adobe Publishing Suite or After Effects but, as I explained in my previous post about our iPhone maps and graphics, sometimes we need to make hard editing choices for maximum simplicity.


Scholes and Laman spent over 2,000 hours sitting in blinds, waiting and watching, to produce over 39,000 pictures and video. It was a pleasure for us to document their work. They hope their work will encourage conservation in New Guinea, where birds of paradise have been so far protected by the remoteness of the place.

They have also been working with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (one of the major supporters of the Project) on a educational website about the Birds-of-Paradise Project.  The website is also incorporated into the National Geographic Education portal.  You can see both here:

Data visualization at Nat Geo, circa 1900

On January 13, 1888, a group of 33 gentlemen founded the National Geographic Society in the Cosmos Club, a select private club in Washington, DC. The group included members of the city’s scientific and intellectual circles and a few prominent explorers. The gathering was vividly portrayed, years later, in a painting by Stanley Meltzoff (below). The round mahogany table can still be found in our headquarters. The central characters in the scene are Major John Wesley Powell, hero of the battle of Shiloh and explorer of the Grand Canyon, and Gardiner G. Hubbard, a prominent Boston lawyer with an aristocratic white beard. Hubbard would become the Society’s first President and his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell (better known as the inventor of the telephone) would succeed him in 1897 after his death.

Click on any image in the post for an enlarged view.

The first issue presented no photographs and had a featureless terracotta cover (below). The iconic yellow frame would not arrive until 1910. The magazine was published at irregular intervals and was edited by four volunteer Vice Presidents, each responsible for Air, Land, Sea and Art. By the end of the year 207 gentlemen and two ladies were receiving, as Society members, a magazine that would become famous around the world.

Graphics and maps at National Geographic go back to that very first issue. With the concept of “data visualization” becoming a trendy one in recent years, sometimes it’s good to remember that not only the concept is centuries old (going all the way back to Scottish engineer and economist William Playfair, who invented the pie, bar and fever line charts in the late 1700’s). For one thing, “data visualization” in the early days had something that is so often lacking today: clear, simple, intelligible storytelling.

Five color maps illustrated an article entitled “The Great Storm of March 11-14, 1888”. Following them, a remarkably elegant chart shows the changes in atmospheric pressure registered by different vessels and land stations over the duration of the three-day storm, and compares them with the normal value. Technical but still a good chart even by today’s standards:


The maps show pressure, temperature and wind at different moments during the storm:


In addition to numerous maps (which will be featured in future posts) black and white charts continued to appear in National Geographic at the turn of the century. A March 1893 article entitled “The movements of our population”, by then editor Henry Gannet, marks the first extensive use of charts in the magazine. It was not uncommon for an article to take the entire issue of the magazine, as shown in this restrained cover:

04.March1893 Cover

The story featured multiple charts and choropleth maps, starting with this comparison of urban and rural population at each census since the first American census, which took place in 1790 (the country’s population was then enumerated to be 3,929,214).

04. March1893Page23

This very original graph shows the evolution of the U.S. population and its ethnic breakdown from the first census to the latest at the time (1890). While “native” and “colored” population increases steadily, immigrant numbers grow exponentially, with a clear majority of German and Irish newcomers. It’s a beautiful, clean design.


Another graph shows a breakdown of the population of large cities, this time less successfully. The heavy, dense grid and the patterns chosen make the chart appear to move from right to left. The perversely literal gradient moves from “white – native-born of native parents” (in white) to “white – native-born of foreign parents”, then “white – foreign-born” and finally “colored” (in black).


The next chart (below) looks at the rate of increase of white and colored populations, a smart analysis and the best way to compare the growth or decrease of variables with very different absolute numbers. Quite remarkable for something done in 1893. I would have done the same thing today.

The sharp decrease of both groups in the 1860-1870 is no doubt consequence of the terrible losses during the Civil War.

The choropleth map at the bottom show the proportion of African-Americans to the total population, by state.


Another chart in the same story (below) offers an interesting comparison, paired with a graph showing immigration in each decade. Despite the up and downs, even the lowest data point signals a 10 percent increase over the previous decade, as the United States continued to attract immigrants.

Overall, the entire story is a great demographic analysis by Henry Gannet (1846-1914), an American geographer and founding member of the National Geographic Society and the United States Geological Survey. Gannet has been described as the “Father of the Quadrangle”, which is the basis for topographical maps in the United States.


The chart below appears in the May, 1898 issue. Population increase is plotted against different measures of progress. Using both wealth and wealth per capita, and area versus population are indicative of the editors’ efforts to provide good context to the story of population growth. However, the methodology or type of units in the y-axis are not explained. The series appears to have been indexed to show the percentage change since the first data point (the only way such different variables could be compared) but it’s unclear how it all is supposed to work since the different lines don’t always start at the same baseline.


Another interesting chart appears in a May 1900 article about the most recent Cuban census data. The first chart is a nice percent bar. Some of the other follow an odd spacial distribution (which doesn’t make them wrong).


The wavy chart below is my favorite from the early days of National Geographic. A January, 1905 article on immigration included this beautiful work showing the immigrants coming to the United Stated every year from 1820 to 1904, by country of origin. Over a thousand data points are represented visually, and all numbers are included as well. The work is credited to F. P. Sargent, the Commissioner General of Immigration, but unfortunately the draftsman producing the chart is not mentioned.


A detail:


Looking at old Nat Geo issues is always a source of inspiration. We had the immigration graph in mind when we used the same visual approach for this 2007 chart showing sales of different music recording formats over time.


I think our immigration chart was very likely inspired by the work of Francis Amasa Walker (1840-1897) who was the Chief of the Bureau of Statistic in the 1870’s and created the Statistical Atlas of the United States (1874), a remarkable visual work based on that census. The statistician used beautiful, elegant charts. The one in the middle in the example below will surely remind you of ours.


Another story in the same issue, entitled “The character of our immigration” by Z. F. McSweeny, shows the characteristic heavy grid of most charts at the turn of the century. It’s a pity because they are otherwise beautiful, elegant and clear.


The story ends with this little oddity about inmates of different ethnic origins. I love the hand-lettering and the curious grouping of racial divisions.


The samples above are just a quick, random sampling from the early 1900’s and even earlier. Today, our access to new technology and formidable amounts of information has spurred the many forms of the too prolific “data viz” field. It’s good that such experimentation continues. But do a quick Google Images search for “data visualization” and you’ll quickly see the state of affairs. Clarity in the transmission of information, which is the essential mandate in journalism, is not a priority for so many of today’s data visualization designers. A simple bar chart is just not cool enough. But if you think of it, since William Playfair first plotted values on two axis with ink and paper there is really not a lot that has been invented in terms of accurately displaying numerical information with precision, clarity and familiarity (which breeds understanding) for readers.

Charting weather disasters

Sandy was a painful reminder of extreme weather events becoming more frequent all over the world. Our September issue featured a story on the topic with this original chart by Senior Graphics Editor John Tomanio (click on it for a detailed view):

The chart shows all weather events since 1980 that caused at least one billion dollars in damages. We chose to measure all events in terms of economic damage to have comparable data for very different events, which are color coded by type (drought, flood, etc). The events are represented by half circles, an unusual chart type seen more often in election charts. I anticipate professor Alberto Cairo (see his terrific blog The Functional Art here) may not be thrilled with it!. As he explains, readers are used to compare visual differences with charts that grow in one dimension only (as a bar chart) rather than two (as any area chart like a pie chart or this one). I fully agree with that but in this case the overall pattern of distribution over time is more important than the individual values: We are seeing more extreme events, and more intense, in recent years. That is apparent in a quick look and the quick take-away message the chart tries to convey. Area charts tend to visually de-emphasize the differences between different values, and that was helpful in a graphic that needed to concentrate so many data points in a small space.

The half circle format provides a common baseline to all events in each year, a terrific idea John had when full circles proved to look too disorganized in the page.

EARLIER VERSIONS: John’s analysis of the 32 years of $1 billion weather disasters
from NOAA led to this first approach: the first 16 years of data (from 1980 to 1995) showed 46 weather events, while the next 16 year period (1996 to 2011) showed 87 events. John roughly plotted the events on two maps, each representing the two time periods. Although subsequent visual approaches would vary quite a bit, this original analysis informed the structure of all versions, comparing the two
time periods. (The “Why is weather extreme?” panel eventually moved to
another part of the story.)

This rough is a bolder, more graphic approach that still geo-locates the weather events on the small maps at bottom. While this proved to be the quickest read of all the versions, John wanted to explore another idea that added a time element to the weather events.

Below is the first attempt of roughly plotting all the weather events by the month and year which they occurred. We liked to see how the frequency of events builds over time, but while the center of each circle corresponds to the month and year of the event, the range of circle sizes made it hard to see that. It needed more order.

By using semi-circles, the final version (first image in this post) makes much clearer to see how the weather events build year-over-year. We called out the ten most expensive events, and added a bit of analysis. The graphic proved popular with the readers, and John keeps receiving requests for copies. A detail is shown below.

John added the exquisite sense of typographic design, color balance and superb editing that is typical of his data graphics. The clear structure of the graphic, comparing two consecutive time periods, is the basis for its success.

IPAD: Our iPad version (see screen grab below), took full advantage of the device’s ability to expand on any given data set. Readers can touch each of the vertical columns and a full scrollable list of all the events that happened that year appears on the left side of the screen:

The stylish radial chart

Traveling in Saudi Arabia a few months ago I couldn’t help to notice there were many people carrying two cell phones around. Typically, one for personal contacts and another one for business. Indeed, Saudis boast a national average of almost two cellular susbcriptions per person. As the chart below shows (find it in our November issue), the U.S. lags most of the world in mobile subscriptions, especially developing countries that simply skipped the land line phase when phones became widespread. For this chart, Senior Graphics Editor Jason Treat used an interesting radial chart format:

I often wonder if readers often stop paying attention to simple charts, or whether they become invisible out of familiarity. This circular form is a pleasing design element and, in this case, a surprising and inviting way to present what otherwise would be a typical bar chart.

The three radial layers in the graphic show the number of mobile subscriptions by year, offering an additional layer of interest. For example, you can see the explosive growth in Africa since 2001 compared to Europe.

For the longest time in our production process, our chart looked mostly like the version shown below. We thought the different colors by continent helped codify and understand the information faster, but not true! Sometimes less is more. The three levels by year and the rainbow of colors were too much to digest in addition to the unfamiliar circular design. Well past our deadline, Jason was able to change the color scheme towards a more monochromatic approach. We also made a series of small edits that emphasized the organizing principle of the chart (the red lines showing the number of subscriptions) and de-emphasized the text notes around the chart, which were secondary content. Small moves like those are often what separate good from great graphics.

This type of radial chart is useful to present long data sets that would otherwise look a bit intimidating in a more conventional chart format. And the unique design allows them to carry the weight of a page as a design element when there are no additional visuals. The biggest shortcoming is that the rotated labels may be harder to read, and that’s something to ponder carefully. What do you think?

Here are two other examples, a couple of years old, by former Senior Graphics Editor Sean McNaughton, always a brilliant designer and editor when large data sets were involved.

COMING SOON To create a graphic about the amazing speed of cheetahs, we had the entire skeleton of a cheetah scanned to create an impressive 3D model. Read it later this week in National Infographic (provided I don’t lose power with the hurricane, which is very likely!)