"Multiplication Waterfall" Turns Arithmetic Into Enigmatic Interactive Art

Handmade-infographics queen Stefanie Posavec teamed up with developer Hadrien Jouet to create a tool for finding beauty in numbers.

Stefanie Posavec makes infographics by hand, rather than by algorithm--and the results are stunning. But even someone who eschews code for pencil and paper can’t resist the siren song of digital interactivity for long. Posavec’s latest creation, "Multiplication Waterfall," updates her previous work, "11 x," and turns it into a browser-based tool that anyone can use to distill beauty out of times-tables.

In her "11 x" series, Posavec invented a visual code for translating numerals into graphic shapes, which turned cascading sets of long multiplication into intricately beautiful patterns. "I just wanted to draw people’s attention to the lovely little patterns that are found in something so mundane," Posavec tells Co.Design. "There’s no ultimate data visualisation insight or grand data being represented here, just a little project on a personal obsession."

But as much as Posavec loved the process of exploring and identifying those patterns by hand, she realized that a faster tool would draw even more people in by letting them find and create their own interesting number patterns. So she teamed up with developer Hadrien Jouet to create "Multiplication Waterfall" in order to "speed things up a bit, as it’s hard to search for beautiful long multiplication patterns when you have to keep calculating in pencil!" she explains. "And also just for a bit of fun."

The site’s UI is as enigmatic as the art it produces: A spreadsheet-like row of cells lines the left side of the screen, and a spartan white canvas filled with cascading icons fills the rest. The connection is not immediately obvious until you change the numbers in those cells and press "multiply"--and watch the "waterfall" change before your eyes.

I tried to figure out Posavec’s algorithm for translating numbers into shapes, but couldn’t make sense of it any more than I could decode the river of green symbols in The Matrix. I asked Posavec if she, like Neo, could "see through the code" and actually do mental arithmetic with the colored symbols. (Octagon times square equals 12?)

"I wasn’t translating numbers to colours in my head," she admits. "But I did fill up quite a few pages in my notebook with lots of long multiplication, done by hand [for '11 x’]. I spent alot of time trying to find the most beautiful long multiplication equations, calculating and re-calculating, trying to figure out which would be the most beautiful. I like how when one digit changes in the first number in the calculation, it cascades down and affects the rest of the calculation as well."

So does "Multiplication Waterfall" mark a turning point in Posavec’s obsession with handmade data visualization? Now that’s she’s had a taste of JavaScript, will she start creating her own digital interactives? "In my dreams!" she says. "I would love to work more in this way, I just need to find more patient and friendly developers and interaction designers who are willing to work with a print-based non-coder such as myself. I’ve accepted that I need to learn how to automate some of my processes, and I think I can best do this by looking to others for their expertise." Sounds like the best of both worlds.

[Explore "Multiplication Waterfall"]

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