GDES-396 spring 2019 (David Ramos, American University Design) · office hours

photo of three-dimensional paper chart

Three-dimensional chart used by Central Electricity Generating Board planners, c.1954. Photo: Science Museum Group, CC BY-NC-SA.

This course examines the design of data visualizations, information graphics, and maps. Through creative projects and exercises, students explore techniques for displaying quantitative and spatial data, explaining complex systems, and shaping numbers into stories. Combines studio practice with reading, technical demonstrations, and supporting lectures.

Learning objectives

You will learn to:


This is a project-based course. Class meetings will include a mix of demonstrations, discussion, critiques, and studio working sessions. Expect to be doing most of your design work outside of class time.

Design curricula have always been flipped, in some sense, but this course relies on video tutorials for much of the technical material. You might notice that we have shorter class meetings than other AU design courses. Class time focuses on critical, conceptual, and formal issues, and on refining the skills that you initially learned outside of class.

This course assumes that you have a working knowledge of Illustrator or an equivalent vector graphics program, or that you can learn through tutorials. We have introductory demonstrations or tutorials for the Illustrator charting tools, spreadsheets, R and RStudio, QGIS, Mapbox, and Workbench.

The class schedule and assignments are provisional and subject to change.

This course is organized so that students from a wide range of backgrounds can flourish in it. If you say don’t like math, that’s fine, but you have to be interested in thinking about numbers. If you haven’t yet worked with typography and graphic design, that’s also fine, but you have to be willing to learn. No matter your background, though, you need to be curious about a broad array of questions and problems out in the world, and able to explore those issues in detail.

Office hours and contact

An office hours schedule is published elsewhere on your instructor’s site. The best way to reach me outside of office hours is through email ( It is department policy not to do critiques over email; plan ahead and take advantage of class time and office hours.

election results page

Election results page, designed to convey uncertainty about the final outcomes. New York Times, 6 November 2018 at 10:39 p.m.

Projects and grading

These percentages will change if assignments and schedules change.

Process and due dates

Projects in this class build through iterations; start early and work consistently. You will need to turn in evidence of your process, so keep versions of your files and paper sketches as they progress. Projects not seen in progress during previous classes will receive a failing grade.

Projects are due at the beginning of class. You may turn in projects at any point up to one week after the due date, without penalty. Grades will drop by one letter (i.e., A- to B-) for every additional week that the project is late.

See instructions for submitting work.

map of Columbus, Ohio, radiating outwards

Map of the area 70 miles away from Columbus, Ohio, 1902. Courtesy of UConn Library, CC BY-NC. (original.)

Tools and resources


There is one required textbook, along with assigned reading from other sources.

Cairo, Alberto. The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication. Hoboken, N.J.: Pearson Education, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0321934079. author’s site

The book is in course reserves at Bender Library, and is also available in electronic form through the library.

Additional resources

The AU Library provides access to online tutorials. We will be relying heavily on video tutorials for covering technical topics.

Software + tools

This class is relatively tool-agnostic. We’re interested in making effective visualizations, using whatever software serves you best. That said, we will be reading about and working with certain tools in class:

If you would like to do projects in another vector drawing program, like Inkscape or Sketch, those programs might work, but you should not expect help with them.

Lab machines are available, but you must not expect to save work on their hard drives.

You’ll need some other supplies:

Keep backups and save versions

Back up your work! and save versions of your projects as you make progress. (More advice on backups and versioning.) Loss of data is not an excuse.

map of New York City floodplains

New York City floodplains. Data from NYC OpenData. Map by the instructor.



Students are expected to attend scheduled class sessions. Grounds for excused absences are illness, family emergencies, jury or military service, and religious obligations. One unjustified absence is allowed for the semester. Each additional absence will lower the course grade by one step (i.e. from A to A-).

Come to class on time and do not leave early. Excessive tardiness, early departures, excessive break time, and lack of participation in assigned class activities will count as equivalent to half an absence (2=1 absence). Tardiness over a half hour will be counted as an absence.

Grading scale

Your instructor will use the following grade scale when evaluating projects, with plusses and minuses.

In the classroom

Academic integrity and citations

Standards of academic conduct are set forth in the University’s Academic Integrity Code. Please see me or consult the student handbook if you have questions about academic violations described in the Code or as they relate to particular requirements for this course.

Image and code citations: You must provide a citation for any material (including text, images, and source code) from a source outside of the textbook or class demonstrations. See class policy on citations.

Support services

American University offers an array of support services.