Infographic of the Day: Inception Contest Winner!

Rick Slusher, a graphic-designer based in New York, wins with a super elegant summary of the film.

Infographic of the Day: Inception Contest Winner!

We searched high and low, across millions of miles of virtual space; we worried that we’d never succeed. But we found him: The architect of the best infographic explanation of Inception, the summer’s most complicated film.


A refresher, for those who are still new: A scant two weeks ago, we began a contest asking readers to create an infographic explaining Inception. The movie needed it, given how complex it was.

Briefly, Inception is about a group of industrial spies (led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Cobb), tasked with convincing the scion of a business empire that he should break up his father’s company. To do that, they have to drug the son and plant that desire within a dream.

But for the idea to take hold and consume the target–and not to be dismissed as nonsense from a sleeping brain–they have to plant it deep into his mind, via a series of intense, sub-conscious narratives. And that means creating dreams within dreams within dreams, so densely layered in the subject’s mind that it feels like a bedrock desire.

We received lots of great entries. But Rick’s idea was the clear winner:

[Click for full-size]


Rick’s entry shows each character as a colored line; the layers of dreams are depicted as concentric circles. Characters enter each dream level to the left. When they all start inhabiting one of the character’s dreams, that character’s color-coded line expands accordingly (to show that everyone is running around in his dream). As characters fall out of each dream sequence, they exit on the right of the chart. The concentric rings depict how time slows down in each layer of dream:

Here’s Rick explaining his thought process in full:

I started brainstorming my entry in the airport, appropriately enough. The only tools I had available were the proverbial napkin and a pen, and I started sketching while waiting for my flight.

My infographic is fundamentally a timeline of Inception’s dream architecture, with each character’s trajectory represented. Characters are shown dropping in and out of one another’s consciousness as they progress through the dream layers. I wanted to emphasize the movie’s timeframe premise — that the perception of the passage of time increases with each deeper dream layer. My initial thought was that concentric circles would be a good diagrammatic approach, as the nested circumferences would be able to expand and converge as necessary to reflect the scaling timeframes.

There are also a couple of subliminal aspects to the design, as a nod to some of the popular alternative plot theories about Inception. Limbo is represented as the black void of the background, and the characters enter and exit the diagram from that same black void, suggesting that “reality” itself may only exist within a dream after all. And the shape of the diagram resembles a kicking foot, alluding to the idea that the movie’s events may actually be Mal’s efforts to “kick” her sleeping husband back to reality.

Superbly done, from the main premise of the infographic down to all the subtle nods at the film’s riddles.


For his troubles, Rick will receive bragging rights, all four of Edward Tufte’s books, and both volumes of Dataflow.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.