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The “Bart And Lisa” Theory Of Information Design

In a new book, Jennifer Daniel uses design to illustrate the origin stories of everything, from Big Bang theory to earwax.

When she was working as graphics editor for the New York Times, Jennifer Daniel and her team developed a philosophy they termed the “Bart and Lisa approach” to designing infographics. “You create something that Bart Simpson would really like,” she explains—a graphic that will appeal to someone with a low-attention span, or a reader who will appreciate the big picture without getting into the granular details. At the same time, the illustration should work on a Lisa Simpson-level; it should be equally as engaging for those who spend a ton of time poring over the page–absorbing the details, appreciating the context–and who walk away having learned something new.

It’s a funny concept, and one that echoes the humor in Daniel’s work, which ranges from graphics in the Times and the New Yorker, to a line of children’s books with Google data journalist Simon Roger, to her sizable online presence. But it’s also an astute description of the qualities of good information design: engaging, informative, and flexible enough to work on multiple comprehension levels.

For her most recent project, Daniel has published a book, The Origin of (Almost) Everything, along with the New Scientist editor Graham Lawton. Moving from broad topics (the entire universe) to more specific ones (technological inventions), Lawton and Daniel explain and illustrate the fascinating origin stories of things like language, music, and belly button fluff. The book is pure delight—equally as fun and as fascinating for kids as it is for adults.

The design of every page of the book, Daniel says, was informed by that “Bart and Lisa” philosophy. Loud, electric patterns begin each chapter, there are gradients throughout, and each page—the book switches between infographic spreads and text-heavy sections—is bordered in a bright pink or orange or blue. “There’s always more than one entry point: you can start at the first sentence on the left corner of the page, or you can start with the sidebar or the annotated illustration,” Daniel says. “I think that’s the way people read online too. They jump around, they don’t just start at the beginning. So that’s my objective for each page, that it should be obvious how to read it, and it should also allow you to do that in your own way.”

Unlike most books, which are written first and designed afterwards, Daniel did her illustrative work in conjunction with Lawton, collaborating closely on the graphics as he wrote each chapter. Infographics take up nearly half of the book, and each one has a different concept from the one before it. For a spread describing dark matter in the universe, Daniel illustrated the “depths of our cosmic ignorance” with a graphic that used light and dark jellybeans to show the percentage of the universe that we can see and understand (5%). The graphic was based off of an actual jar of jellybeans that physicists at Fermilab, a particle physics center near Chicago, use to visualize the concept to visitors.

In another spread, Daniel illustrates the difference in earwax consistency with a photo-based infographic showing cotton swabs with both wet earwax and dry earwax. This infographic involved some outside participation: “I had never seen dry earwax before,” says Daniel. “I have wet earwax; I just assumed everyone has wet earwax.” She polled her colleagues at the Times about the texture of their earwax, and decided that if it was that fascinating to them, it was interesting enough to illustrate for the book. A coworker with dry earwax provided the sample in the photograph.

Other spreads shows a looping chart of all the animals that have been domesticated over the last 15,000 years, the actual size of a frighteningly large pre-historic dragon-fly (its wingspan was over two feet), and a break-down of the world’s most widely-spoken languages. That each illustration is so different is testament to Daniel’s unceasing curiosity and creativity.

“With science, there’s a lot to explore—the minute you scratch the surface you want to learn a little bit more and go a little bit deeper,” she says. “Everything I work on, whether it’s at the newspaper or with books, I surround myself with people who are much smarter than I am. Then I latch onto them and try to pull out what is interesting to them and what is interesting to me. Wherever it overlaps, that’s what makes it in the graphic.”

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.