David McCandless is a data-journalist and author of the book Information is Beautiful. In his 2012 TED talk, he discusses how visuals can bring greater clarity and understanding to written information that can otherwise be, well, overwhelming or even bland.

To find out for myself, I searched for some meaningful statistics I could use to create my own visualization project.

Childhood Obesity

With the help of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move public health campaign, Americans have become more aware of the childhood obesity issue. At the start of her initiative in 2010, close to one in three children in America were overweight or obese (Learn The Facts | Let’s Move!, n.d.).

The most recent statistics I could find were from the years 2015 to 2016. Based on the CDC National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data brief, the occurrence of obesity at that time was as follows:

I had the data, now I needed to breathe life into it.

Four elements

According to McCandless, there are four elements necessary for good data visualization:

  1. Information (the data)
  2. Function (your goal)
  3. Visual form (a metaphor, or how it relates)
  4. Story (the concept)
(McCandless, 2014)

Information & Function

Since I already had the information, I moved on to function. My goal? To keep it simple. Although the data was broken down by gender, I decided I just wanted to show the overall stats by age group.

A simple grid would definitely do it (the technical term for the grid is spatial substrate, which simply means the space used to create a visualization).

Visual Form

When I considered what the visual form would be, I thought about how I had snacked as a child. Sometimes my snacks were healthy, but other times not so much. Treats like ice cream, cake and cookies definitely crept into my childhood diet.

Cookies seemed like a highly relatable choice; a metaphor for childhood.

I could see the two-dimensional grid in my mind; three stacks of cookies measured on the y-axis, each cookie representing one percent. But what could I show to help the reader visualize the three age groups on the x-axis? Then it dawned on me.

What do you drink with cookies? Usually milk.

A different container representing each age group would drive the message home in seconds.


And so my message is this: no matter what your age, try and limit the amount of cookies in your diet. Enjoy all things in moderation — avoid the excess.


” … more than our brain is dedicated to the processing of visual input, and so pure text and numbers cannot convey information in as memorable or digestible form as that of successful visual-based storytelling” (Losowsky, 2011, as cited in Klanten, Ehmann, & Schulze, 2011).

How did I do? Did you receive the message I was trying to convey, or are you just hungry? A bit of whimsy never hurts to help engage your audience.

“If you combine the language of the eye with the language of the mind … you start speaking two languages simultaneously, each enhancing the other” (David McCandless, 2012 TED Talk).

Remember, “graphical representations of quantitative data boost understanding” (Watson, 2017). A good information visualization draws you in, allowing you to think about things in a slightly different way. When you include the four elements of information, function, visual form and story, you can ensure your audience can digest the data easily.

And that makes you a smart cookie.

until nxt time …


Childhood obesity—Symptoms and causes. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/childhood-obesity/symptoms-causes/syc-20354827

Childhood Obesity Facts | Overweight & Obesity | CDC. (2019, June 24). Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html

Hales, C.M., Carroll, M.D., Fryar, C.D., Ogden, C.L. Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016. NCHS data brief, no 288. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2017.

Heilpflanzen. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://hbcglobalartcollection.com/collection/sarah-illenberger-heilpflanzen/

Information Visualization – A Brief Introduction. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/information-visualization-a-brief-introduction

Klanten, R., Ehmann, S., & Schulze, F. (2011). Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language. Gestalten.

Krasnic, T. (2010, August 23). Visual mapping. Retrieved from: https://www.seenmagazine.us/Articles/Article-Detail/ArticleId/840/Visual-mapping

Learn The Facts | Let’s Move! (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://letsmove.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/learn-facts/epidemic-childhood-obesity

McCandless, D. (n.d.). What Makes A Good Data Visualization? Retrieved from: https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/what-makes-a-good-data-visualization/

McCandless, D. (2014). Knowledge Is Beautiful: Impossible Ideas, Invisible Patterns, Hidden Connections–Visualized. Harper Design.

TED-Ed. (2012, November 23). The beauty of data visualization – David McCandless. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Zg-C8AAIGg

Visual Mapping – The elements of information visualization. (2019, October 27). Retrieved from: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/visual-mapping-the-elements-of-information-visualization

Watson, H.J. (2017). Data Visualization, Data Interpreters, and Storytelling. Business Intelligence Journal. 22. 5-10.

Header photo by Alexander Dummer from Pixabay

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  1. Holly, you did a fantastic job with this informational visual! Looking at the initial CDC data is straight forward but incredibly boring to look at. What I love about your visual is that you used relatable elements. What is the one thing we are told will make us strong individuals growing up, milk. You harnessed that to show the different age categories and how we go from bottles of it to cartons, to eventually full-fledged cups if it. But of course, there is a tinge of contrast to the healthy option with the Oreos that seem to overpower it. And that, is where you best capture the increasing rates of childhood obesity I believe. Similarly, the tower of Oreos are stacked with asymmetrically like a Jenga tower about to topple over. It says to me, how much longer until it all comes crashing down. Well done!

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