GDES-360 spring 2022 / David Ramos, American University Design

Change over time

example visualization

Plotting a time-based phenomenon. 2019 was hotter than normal — but what does this even mean?, by Gregor Aisch.

Take a look at tables of the largest cities in the US for 1790, 1890, and 1990, from a Census Bureau report on the 100 largest cities. There’s a story in these data.

The U.S. of 1790 is hard to recognize. At the time of the first Census, Salem, Mass. comes in 7th, with a population of 7,921. ¶ The 1890 Census shows booming industrial cities in the Northeast and the growing strength of the Midwest. Los Angeles is in 57th place, population 50,395, far behind boomtown Buffalo (11th place, population 255,664). Salem only just makes the list, in 100th place and 30,801 people. ¶ By 1990, Los Angeles has climbed to 2nd place, and four of the ten largest cities are in the Sunbelt.

photo of passengers on ship with Lower Manhattan behind

Lower Manhattan seen from the S.S. Coamo leaving New York. Jack Delano, Farm Security Administration, December 1941. (Library of Congress.)


Your challenge, for this next exercise, is to explore the population data for American cities, past and present, to find insights within those data, and to communicate those insights in a visualization.

A few more seeds of ideas: The 1830 Census showed Baltimore as the second largest city in the country, but it is 30th today. Washington, D.C.’s population had been falling since just after WWII, but it recently rebounded and just hit 700,000. Detroit’s population plummeted in recent decades, forcing city leaders to make plans to help the city shrink.

You do not (necessarily) need to plot two centuries worth of Census data. It might be more illuminating to show us two or three years, especially if you are comparing several cities.

Start this project by exploring data

First, take a look at a CSV file that I compiled, with the 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020 Census populations for selected cities (ZIP). Look at the data and plot them. [Update, 2022-02-04: added 2020 Census, and corrected 1990 population for Detroit.]

You have options if you want more depth

You don’t need more depth. If you’re curious, though, you can explore farther.

The Census Bureau report discussed in the introduction, Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States: 1790 to 1990, is an excellent source for historical populations. Data come in the form of text tables, which you’ll have to reformat.

Wikipedia often provides perfectly adequate background material and links to sources. The Wikipedia articles about cities usually include “demographics” sections, with tables of population over the years. (Look at the Washington, D.C. article for an example.) You can check the sources for those tables, and if the sources seem credible plausible, you can use the numbers for this project. Also, see the List of United States cities by population article.

If you want to find recent data for any U.S. city, is probably the most robust way to find recent Census data about particular geographies, but the site is new and hard to use. I don’t recommend spending time on it, unless you’re intensely curious or already experienced.

On to design

As with the previous assignment, produce two versions. Make one version as legible and understandable as possible, and have the other express the meaning in the most compelling or intriguing way.

Your final project can be rough in the sense that type, color, and rendering need not be polished. (You can produce this by hand.) What’s important is that you think about techniques for visualizing change over time. Details still matter—they just don’t need to be finessed in software.

Each version might consist of a single visualization (that is, one figure), but you could also arrange several visualizations on the same page.

As always, see the course schedule for deadlines.


Tools and methods

Anything, really. Flourish or a spreadsheet will probably prove useful for exploring and for creating a rough visualization. You can make the final versions with Illustrator, by hand, or by another method. I strongly suggest working on paper.

For ideas about ways to approach this task, see chapters 5 and 8 from The Truthful Art. You might also look at the Showing Data Over Time selections at the Data Visualisation Catalogue, though not all of these choices are appropriate for the data or for your schedule.

If you’re working on paper, you can download graph paper from sites like Print free graph paper.

Here’s a video on quickly plotting data in Google Sheets, and fixing in Illustrator.

Issues to watch for

Read on, if you’re seeking detail. Which you should be doing.

The boundaries of cities change, sometimes dramatically. In 1890, Brooklyn and New York City still existed as separate municipalities. The present-day New York City, with its five boroughs, was consolidated in 1898. In general, cities grow to encompass ever-larger geographical areas.

All of the sources linked on this sheet are comparing cities, but if you are thinking about a figure you read elsewhere, make sure that you are comparing apples to apples. The Census Bureau reports the populations of many different types of geographies. We are talking here about cities, defined by their corporate borders, not CSAs (Combined Statistical Areas or MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas). The 2020 population of Washington, D.C., was 689,545, but the population of the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV MSA—a region that sweeps from Harpers Ferry to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay—was 6,385,162.