GDES-360 spring 2021 / David Ramos, American University Design


Data Visualization
and Information Design

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.

map with flooding

A Sharp Increase in “Sunny Day” Flooding, by Jonathan Corum, New York Times, 2016.

Learning outcomes

You will learn to:

  • Reason about and visually explore quantitative data
  • Design graphical displays of quantitative information
  • Present spatial data on maps
  • Employ type, color, and shape in visualizations
  • Evaluate visualizations for candor and effectiveness
  • Identify the strengths, limitations, and assumptions of datasets
  • Use spreadsheets and statistical software for data processing and analysis
  • Produce visualizations using statistical and drawing software
  • Work with GIS tools
Habits of Mind Q2 banner

In this course, you will develop the following skills and knowledge:

  • Translate real-world questions or intellectual inquiries into quantitative frameworks
  • Select and apply appropriate quantitative methods or reasoning
  • Draw appropriate insights from the application of a quantitative framework
  • Explain quantitative reasoning and insights using appropriate forms of representation so that others could replicate the findings
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.)

Structure and time

This course is organized around a series of projects. Everything we do—reading, demonstrations, discussion, critiques, and studio work—enables, supports, or responds to those larger projects.

For spring 2021, this course will run in a synchronous, online format. We’ll meet using a combination of Zoom (for video chat) and Miro (as an online whiteboard).

The in-person version of this class meets for 5 hours a week, but about half of that time is studio/lab. For this online format, you should budget at least 7.5 hours a week (in total) for class meetings, homework, and reading. Note that online courses require even more reading and video-watching than in-person classes.

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. Most of details of technical, software issues, you will need to learn from the reading. In-class demonstrations and lectures focus on tying together the reading and on offering insights that aren’t readily available offline.

Your background and this class

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 through quantitative data. This class is about design, not about getting software to do something; you’ll need to be excited about going farther than the defaults.

Dates and times

All dates and times are Washington, D.C. local time.

Tools, materials, and reading


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 available in electronic form through the AU Library.

Application software

We will be reading about and working with certain tools in class:

  • RAWGraphs (free)
  • Flourish (free)
  • Workbench (free)
  • Adobe Illustrator for editing vector graphics and for some simple charting. (The Art Department/Design Program gives students access to Adobe Creative Cloud.)
  • A spreadsheet program. Excel,, Google Sheets, and OpenOffice are all fine.
  • Mapbox, a software-as-a-service product. The free accounts will serve you well.

This course assumes that you have a working knowledge of Illustrator or an equivalent vector graphics program, or that you can learn through self-directed tutorials. 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.

You might want to work with a few other, more complicated tools:

  • R and RStudio, free or open source
  • QGIS, a free/open source GIS

Software tutorials at LinkedIn Learning

The AU Library provides access to LinkedIn Learning, formerly We’ll be using the site’s tutorials to cover basic technology skills. (The AU Library provides instructions on how to set up your LinkedIn Learning account.)

Collaboration and communication tools

  • This website is your main source for information. The schedule, assignments, and most course information will be published here. Bookmark this site.
  • You’ll turn in work and receive grades on Canvas . Some copyrighted reading will be posted there.
  • Our synchronous (real-time) video meetings will take place on Zoom. (Link and password are on Canvas .)
  • We’ll use Miro for visual comments during discussions and critiques. Accounts are free for students, but you won’t need to sign up. (Invite link is on Canvas .)
  • There is a Discord server for this class. It’s a good place to ask questions, share ideas, and pass along interesting material that you come across. Posting is optional, but will add to your participation grade. (Invite link is on Canvas .)
  • I’ll send any critical, all-class messages as announcements within Canvas. Make sure that Canvas will notify you when you receive a message. (How to set Canvas notifications settings.)


You’ll need some other supplies:

  • Paper or sketchbook, for sketching and for taking notes
  • Technical pens, drawing pencils, and markers (please don’t struggle through sketching with a ballpoint pen)
  • Colored pencils or colored markers, at least a few
  • Straightedge or ruler
  • Tracing paper
  • Graph paper (or a printout of graph paper)
  • USB thumb drive, portable hard drive, or cloud storage account for backup and moving files

Good places to purchase:

  • Sullivan’s Art Supplies, 4200 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC (Tenleytown—limited selection)
  • Plaza Artist Materials, 1990 K St. NW, Washington, DC (Metro to Farragut North; N busses from Ward Circle)
  • Plaza Artist Materials, 7825 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda, MD (Metro to Bethesda)
  • Dick Blick Art Supplies, 1250 I St. NW, Washington, DC (Metro to McPherson Square or Metro Center)
map of New York City floodplains

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

Policies and expectations

Projects and grading

The course schedule, assignments, and these percentages may change.

  • 45–50% Intro projects
  • 45–50% Large projects
  • 0–10% Quizzes
  • Participation modifies grade as necessary

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, if you want to stay on schedule. You may turn in or resubmit projects through the final deadline (during exam period—see the class schedule), without penalty.

Grading scale

  • A (excellent) Work that is clearly superior.
  • B (good) Work that reflects a strong understanding of the material.
  • C (fair) Work that shows basic competence and fulfills the requirements of the assignment.
  • D (poor) Work that is unsatisfactory or inadequate.
  • F (failing) This grade is assigned for failure to complete work in a timely and competent manner, or for non-attendance.

Attendance and the classroom

Come to class, on time. It is better to show up late than not to arrive at all. You can miss one class, for any reason, without penalty. Additional absences or missed class time will count against your course grade; final grades drop by 4% for each unexcused absence.

Grounds for excused absences are illness, religious observances, family emergencies, and military or jury service. You do not need to provide a note, but you must let me know by email.

In the classroom, conduct yourself professionally, in a way that shows respect for your fellow students, your instructor, and the material. Do not record audio or video; if you need a recording, your instructor will arrange for one.

Citations and academic integrity

You’ll need to provide citations for every piece of work that you didn’t make yourself. This includes text, images, ideas, and code. It includes images that you edited, images that you traced, and even images that you merely used as references for your own illustrations.

When you turn in the files for a project, include a list of citations in a separate document. You need not adhere to any particular citation format (though consider the Chicago Manual of Style). Whatever you do, your instructor must be able to identify the material and find the original. If you have a web address, provide it.

An example citation:

My drawing of a bird is traced from a freely licensed
photo by John Cobb, on Unsplash.

Try making your own images and photographs. You will learn more, and the results are likely to be more original.

Standards of academic conduct are set forth in the university’s Academic Integrity Code. See your instructor if you have questions about academic violations described in the code, as they apply in this course.



The best way to reach me is through email (; I typically check email on weekday mornings.

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