Mapping The Recession’s Absurdity, Using D&D Dice

Artist James Bills uses polyhedral dice to generate random data for infographics on the financial crisis that are every bit as nonsensical as the recession itself.

You only need to look at one of Co.Design’s most popular features to see that society is inundated with information. Artist James Bills has a different take on our info-overloaded culture. He creates art that nods to our desperate need for orderly facts and figures, yet populates his work with his own, random self-generated data.


Using the rolling polyhedral dice that come with role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, Bills creates his own data sets by rolling the 4-, 8-, 10-, 12- or 20-sided die and tallying the results. “I can randomly generate numbers and form data sets of a particular size but still contain an element of chance,” Bills tells Co.Design. “The data is just as much of a creation as the drawings.”

Although Bills agrees that his work has a sympathetic relationship with data visualization, he sees some fundamental differences: namely, his choice to render his art by hand. “I feel it is important for the drawing process to be evident, for the viewer to sense the amount of time and effort spent, the mind working behind the construction, and that is often lost in computer renderings,” he says. “It also enables me to explore material connections to the viewer, such as the associations that come with gilding.” (Bills adds gold leaf to some of his drawings, which could create feelings of wealth and luxury.)

Golden Parachutes, his most recent series, plays upon the most puzzling and nonsensical results of the recent recession. The illustrated charts purport to explain a rather abstract concept about the financial collapse–why are some executives receiving massive payouts from their corporations?–but they’re designed using Bills’s ambiguous data, which he thinks matches corporations’ own ridiculous methodology. With some cells of the chart colored in, some left transparent, they seem to tell a story. As Bills puts it: “You can see a system at work, but you can’t easily explain how or why.”

Why are we, as a culture, so obsessed with data visualization? Bills thinks it’s linked to an oft-repeated notion that the U.S. is failing as a nation, with a system on the verge of collapse. “Graphs, charts and data visualizations are comforting in this climate,” he says. “They give a larger, easier-to-understand picture of the world around us and offer a sense that solutions are possible. What may seem complex and chaotic can actually be managed and placed in an orderly package.” Of course, when making art, it helps that infographics also have an aesthetic edge, which drew Bills to the format in the first place. “Data visualizations are simply quite beautiful,” he says. “Who can resist them?”

[All images photographed by Photo315]

[H/T But Does It Float]

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.