I remember the first time I stumbled across the work of Nicholas Rougeux — it was his painstaking recreation of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours — and I was absolutely puzzled. What was it? A design project? A historical study? It was far too detailed to be historical research and far too well researched to be a design project. Then his Byrne’s Euclid came out and melted my mind. Now, earlier this month, he released another amazingly detailed project, Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants. He was nice enough to let me barrage him with questions via email:
Jason Forrest: What do you actually call this kind of work? How did you get started doing it?
Nicholas Rougeux: I like to think of the projects I’ve done over the past several years as data art — primarily because that’s a term most people can understand with little to no explanation. I don’t intend to put myself on a pedestal by using the term “art” but I use it to indicate that my projects are focused more on connecting with people on an emotional level with visual experiments than on informing or educating them.
I got started with data art back in 2012 with my Routelines posters which showcase maps of cities around the world using only their roads. Back in 2012, this seemed more of a novel idea (at least I thought so) but it’s become a lot more common. This project opened my eyes to how people can connect emotionally with data. The posters themselves were relatively simple but I learned that people bought them to commemorate meaningful events in their lives like where they’ve lived, traveled, want to travel, and more. That was interesting and fueled my desire to see what else people might connect with that we tend to overlook in our daily lives.
JF: One of the aspects I really love about your work is that many of your projects have a historical background. Are you primarily interested in projects that resonate with your own personal history or with subjects that are applicable to a wider audience?
NR: In a broad sense, I’ve always been interested in science, mathematics, and creativity in general so many of my projects do somewhat resonate with those interests but I don’t use that as criteria for picking a new topic. Sometimes, the topics find me and I develop an interest where I had little to none.
A good example of this is my Off the Staff project, which visualizes notes in classical music. My background has almost nothing to do with music other than the fact that I did grow up in a musical household (both parents were in the theater when they were younger). I’ve never been musically inclined and can’t read sheet music at all but stumbled upon a program, MuseScore, that helped me analyze the structure of sheet music in ways I couldn’t before and opened up the topic of music to me. I still can’t read it but now I have a better understanding of its structure.
JF: The breadth of your research on each topic is equally as interesting as your finished works. Most of your projects are paired with detailed backgrounds and a step-by-step walkthrough of your process. What is it that drives you to dig so deep in each project?
NR: I dig into each project because I want to be at least somewhat knowledgeable about it so that what I create is rooted in reality. I also do research to check to see if anyone else has undertaken efforts I’m considering when starting a project.
Quite often, the research happens early on in a flurry of activity where I get an idea and do a lot of googling to see what’s been produced around a topic. Gaining this understanding of the people and history behind a publication or topic tells me more about why it may have been created. This is sometimes the most fascinating part and I try to imbue that history into a project.
For example, I learned that the printing of Byrne’s Euclid was notable not only because of its unique design but because of its use of color because printing with multiple colors throughout the book instead of just specific plates or illustrations was a huge undertaking and quite expensive. This could be why Byrne only produced 6 out of Euclid’s original 13 books. This gave me a greater respect and understanding of why there was a limited color palette (by today’s standards).
Byrne’s title also sparked curiosity: Oliver Byrne’s The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid. I knew about geometry from school and excelled at it but was never taught about its history. I like to understand the origins of things so I not only researched Byrne himself but also Euclid and his 13 books outlining the foundation of geometry. Because of this, I even ended up trying several proofs that Euclid and Byrne outlined. As expected, they still apply but knowing the why and how really deepens my appreciation for what they created. Going down rabbit holes of research can be exciting!
When it came to Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, my research was focused on getting a crash course in the topic as I knew nothing about botanical illustration (or even the term itself). I could have chosen any of the many illustration catalogs to recreate but my research helped me understand the reasons behind why the illustrators created them, who the well-known artists were, and the techniques that were utilized when creating them.
Ultimately, I ended up choosing Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants by Elizabeth Twining (2 volumes, 1868) because Twining’s work stood out from the others for its uniqueness in style and combinations of plants. She was also not as well known as other artists. She illustrated 160 orders of plants with vignettes of British plants alongside those from other countries, creating pairings that aren’t often seen in nature. From her introduction:
“By thus placing our native plants in groups with foreigners, we acquire a more correct idea of the nature of our Flora, and the character it has when compared with that of other countries. This is the first work which has thus done due honour to our British plants by connecting with others, and placing them whenever possible at the head of the Order to be illustrated.”
~ Elizabeth Twining, 1868
I’ve outlined some of this research in my making-of blog post.
JF: That’s one of the most remarkable aspects of your work — just how much effort you put into each project! I find the care that you put into the documentation to be pretty remarkable and adds a lot to the understanding of each project. But: why do you put so much effort into each project?
NR: Each project is a labor of love. I enjoy the process — often more than the final result. The slow process of becoming intimately familiar with a piece of material — learning the structure, the nuances, the writing style, getting inside an author’s mind, digging into the history of a topic, etc. is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s not something that can be rushed.
I create the making-of blog posts because I find the behind-the-scenes stuff on others’ projects to be fascinating and educational. By giving details of my process, I can only hope that others might take away something that can help them with their projects or pique their interest in starting something new. I’ve also found that the key to giving so much detail about a process is to take notes about it as I go along, so by the end, I can compile them rather than trying to remember everything at once.
JF: Is there any connective thread between your different projects? I feel like there is a system at work, but I can’t seem to put my finger on it yet.
NR: To be honest, there isn’t. I like to experiment with new topics for most projects and I don’t want to restrict myself to any one thing. There are topics with really fun data that I’ve found very interesting like national parks, transit, or classic literature but I don’t seek out any specific topic when I start. I love discovering a rich topic that I previously knew nothing about and finding out there’s a dedicated community out there enjoying everything about it.
JF: Your projects explore your subject through extensive visual analysis and experimentation. Why have you developed this approach, and do you consider it unusual to do so with primarily cultural projects?
NR: Experimentation is key for every project and I learned early on to keep track of every iteration I create. Not only do lots of different visual experiments reveal potential patterns or insights, but they serve as inspiration for later iterations or other projects. Just because something doesn’t work now doesn’t mean it won’t work later on. I don’t consider it unusual for any project. Experimenting may be difficult if you have that one great idea but even forcing yourself to think of something different might just make it even better.
JF: Can you give us an example of how a mistake or pushing a new idea has fundamentally changed how you looked at a project?
NR: The best mistake that had the most impact was what lead to creating Between the Words, a poster series based on the punctuation of literary classics. In playing around with regular expressions (patterns that help extract text from other text) for another project, I accidentally removed everything but punctuation from a string of text. I thought this looked interesting and tried it with a larger set of text like The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (the full text of which is on Project Gubenberg) and thought it was interesting enough to create a poster series around the idea. I played around with a few ways to include all the punctuation on a poster and landed on using a spiral with each chapter marked. I completed the entire project over the course of a weekend and posted it online with a tweet, not expecting the attention it was about to get.
Thanks to a couple of well-known people in the data visualization community retweeting about it, the project gained a lot of attention and really opened my eyes to the appeal that classical works of art have for many people. Not bad for a weekend project!
JF: How do you select a project or focus on a particular skill or approach you’re interested in learning? Is there anything you’re specifically not interested in? How do you know you’ve found something that sparks your curiosity?
NR: I like to keep an open mind for anything that may cross my path. In a broad sense, sciences and the arts capture my interest the most but if something doesn’t fit under those large umbrellas, I won’t dismiss it out of hand. Lots of things spark my curiosity but I tend to be drawn to items that have some underlying structure that I might be able to tease out to create something new from it.
The ‘likenesses’ between the plants Twining illustrated is a good example of this. While there are plenty of diagrams of plant genealogies, to my knowledge, no one documented the specific ones Twining described. I felt this added a new unseen dimension to her work. The poster I created containing all of Byrne’s diagrams is another simpler example. To my knowledge, no one had extracted out all of his illustrations into a single view before. Considering how colorful and varied they are, I thought this would look really fun. Surprisingly, so did many other people! Another more abstract example is my Literary Constellations project where I created constellations based on the parts of speech of first sentences of chapters of classic short stories.
JF: Your “Color Palettes of The New Yorker” project has an explicit design subject matter focus that you then explore with data. What did you learn from a project like that, and can you explain how you might “learn differently” when you apply that kind of data exploration to an art/design project?
NR: That project was the result of me being really determined to do something with a large set of color data. I’ll admit the end product is not as interesting as the process leading up to it where I came up with several dozen experiments in visualizing the data. I learned from all the experiments that trying out different ideas — no matter how abstract they are — can be fascinating and can help on future projects. In devising the methods to produce the images, I learned a lot of new techniques and tools that I can use to experiment with other data to possibly gain more insights. Some of them almost made into a third poster for Twining’s illustrations too (and still might one day).
JF: Last question: what are you starting to explore next?
NR: A loaded question! Over the course of answering questions for this interview, I’ve been researching a new project and have started building it out. It’s still in the very early stages and I still may scrap it for something else but so far, I like how it’s coming along. I can’t reveal many details yet but I’m having fun playing around with typography and my recent tweet about stylistic ligatures is related.
Jason Forrest is a data visualization designer and writer living in New York City. He is the director of the Data Visualization Lab for McKinsey and Company. In addition to being on the board of directors of the Data Visualization Society, he is also the editor-in-chief of Nightingale: The Journal of the Data Visualization Society. He writes about the intersection of culture and information design and is currently working on a book about pictorial statistics.