A Minimalist Periodic Table - FastCo/Alison Haigh

Rules We Live By

In a recent post, our friends at FastCo Design spotlighted Alison Haigh’s beautiful reinterpretation of the periodic table — we, too, are big fans of this incredible design.

In Alison’s version of the periodic table, gone are the letter combinations standing in place of such obscure elements as flerovium and hassium. Instead, Alison’s minimalist yet elegant design shows the gradual increase in electrons among the elements, not only providing a new twist on a familiar subject but opening up the table to new and useful insights.

From this abstracted (and quite purple) version of the periodic table, we can learn volumes about artistic value and the presentation of patterns in our world. This infographic also got me thinking about the rules we at Maga live by every day.

The first rule that comes to mind is Edward Tufte’s idea of small multiples — a series of small similar graphics that can be easily compared. This concept is something we apply in many of our maps, and since much of our work is in the technical community, small multiples are a highly effective way to show relationships, density, and overarching patterns.

Tufte - Envisioning Information

Next is variable story distance, the idea that a map should reveal different elements of the story when viewed at different distances. If you see a wall-chart map from 20 feet away, it should speak to you, be memorable, and provide some semblance of a story. But when you walk closer, that story should get richer at eight feet, and richer still at two feet or viewed even closer.

Elements of contrast, color, and labels are also important elements of this rule. While this graphic has a nice contrast and pop of color, labels are something that we would usually advocate (I know, I know, it’s artistic!). The story is spatially arranged so that even with the lack of labels, with even a basic knowledge of the periodic table, one can realize and track the story as the build to the final set of electrons reveals the full and balanced “atom.”

Over time, for a map to work, we want the reader to refer back to it. In other words, it should be referenceable. It shouldn’t go instantly out of date or tell such a one-dimensional story that you don’t need to revisit it. That is the single biggest difference I see between Maga’s work and the huge universe of infographics.


Maga’s map for Vivisimo, a software firm, demonstrates the potential of referenceable visualizations.

There are two major issues here.

  • The story can be so straightforward that once you get it, you don’t need to go back and check on it. A good example is a design that I reference showing the number of Starbucks cups in the world and how they could be stacked to the moon and back. While effectively demonstrating its point, the design is a kind of one-trick pony and doesn’t repay further visits.


  • The second issue is that too many visual projects (and almost every Web project) focus on stories and data that change all the time. Revisiting such a design proves fruitless, because it will almost assuredly be out of date when the reader returns to it.

Our final rule has to do with style. Alison’s infographic is clean, minimalist, and pleasing to the eye. At Maga, this is what we strive to achieve, even for the most dense topic, and our illustration team succeeds more often than not.

So thank you, Alison, for this inspiration. Your periodic table has all these qualities and more! Let’s all order one and keep in mind that the rules of maps can help us in all our communication efforts.


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