Data Kitchen: How to Make Spreadsheets Look Good Enough to Eat

Anna Lena Schiller and Lisa Rienermann are behind the amazing Binders Full of Burgers Tumblr that ran food based political visualizations during the 2012 US Presidential Race, and the Wahlwaffeln Tumblr during the 2011 Berlin election.

Spreadsheets and Spaghetti Sauce

When I was little my father always used to cook spaghetti sauce for my friends and me. It was our favorite sauce. Thick, bright red and oh so tasty. What we didn‘t have a clue about was what that sauce was actually made of. Had we known that he put fine grated carrots, celery, tomatoes and (the worst!) beetroot in there, we most likely would have refused to eat it. Clever parent that my father was, he knew that sometimes you need to transform things and conceal its true nature in order show its real value.

Data faces a similar dilemma. We all know that vegetables are healthy, and we all know the potential of data. But spread sheets are to designers what vegetables are to children. They‘re not pleasing to look at, probably hard to digest and normally don’t trigger a visual person‘s appetite. We‘d like to tell you a story about how we made rows and cells of numbers look so good that even food blogs take a liking to excel.
 

 

Prelude

A little over a year ago in September 2011, Berlin was to elect a new senate and mayor. We usually gather around the tv while waiting for the polls to close and the first projections to light up the screen. This time though, we decided to make the whole event a little more exciting. We wanted to visualize the election results – with waffles. So we went shopping, invited some friends over to help up with the logistics and at 6 pm sharp, when the first results came in, we started a food feast. Waffles in all shapes, sizes and colors, pie chart waffles and waffles as bar graphs. Waffles for political parties, waffles for senate seats and candidates with waffles. It was fun, it was tasty and we knew that where this came from, there could be so much more.

When the campaign for the US presidency started earlier this year it seemed like the perfect opportunity for further honing our data kitchen skills. The United States, land of fries and burgers – there was surely potential in this for combining information, visuals, and food.
 

 

The Data

We started out with a brainstorm and then the project slowly progressed to some more concrete visual ideas. Pretty quickly we decided that we wanted to move from just visualizing election results to actually explaining how the election works. Polling, voter registration, campaign spendings, policy debates, electoral systems. Lots of information to be sorted, lots of data to be processed. As the scope grew bigger we added another player to the line-up. Journalist Sylke Gruhnwald, who was covering the election for Swiss “New Zurich Times”, joined the project as data expert, providing great insight into the vast amount of data sets.
 

 

Finding Visuals

Working at the intersection of not only data and visualization but also food put us in the unique position of drawing inspiration from all those areas. Was it data-driven visualization? Sure. Was it illustration? Absolutely. Was it food porn? Hell yeah.
 

 
Some ideas derived from data sets, like fries stacked on piles, based on the mentions of countries in the foreign policy debate. Other pictures were driven by food, like a hamburger cut in half and its layers representing campaign spendings. We also faced dead ends when wanting to explain how swing states influenced the election outcome, but neither data nor food matched what we had imagined.
Being inspired as well as constrained by three sources at the same time can ultimately both stifle and stimulate creativity. We firmly believe that only those who can embrace all entities will turn out to be successful data kitchen chefs.

Cooking

During the actual production process we aimed for the visual design to closely resemble the real food world. Using only natural colors, no additives, as well as props, cloths and surfaces that you would also find in a normal fast food restaurant. Placing data in a real world setting, turning it into “physical data”, is not only part of the charm, but essential to making spreadsheets good enough to eat.

When using food there are two things to watch out for – the right texture and good colours.
In one of our series we wanted to show this year’s polling results which had Obama and Romney neck to neck, and then compare those with historic polling data from previous elections. We opted for using sauces to visualize the graphs and tried a couple of combinations on trays. Our first choice was ketchup and mayo, but we dropped that idea and went for mustard instead. First of all because mustard would allow us to work on both light and dark backgrounds. On top of that mayonnaise turned out to be too thick to do nice curves.
 

 
This brings up the issue of food styling and tempering. We did think about adding blue colouring to properly represent the Democrats, but decided against it to comply to our “all natural” rule. Since we didn’t have blue for the Democrats we mixed up the colors completely, attributing red ketchup to Camp Obama and yellow mustard to Team Romney.
 

 
We also received comments asking if we used anything to make the food look better. There’s an easy answer to that – work quickly and you won’t need to. Don’t let food sit around, you can tell right away if it’s been out too long. That means planning well in advance how you want the food to be laid out and putting it together in a timely manner. Working fast and without any chemical helpers does have the advantage though that you can eat everything in the end.
 

 
After planning, cooking and producing we added some finishing touches and drew numbers directly onto the pictures to keep a coherent visual, handmade style. We labelled the pictures to add a descriptive layer to the visuals, putting some more emphasis on the data part. It is, after all, not as easy to cut up burger buns or fry patties as precisely as you can create charts in Illustrator.
 

 

Future

Our plan for the future is to graduate to the next level of data kitchen mastery. We’d like to dig more into topics that are potentially controversial, politically charged or continuously overlooked. There’s so much power in transforming information into visuals to communicate important matters and appeal to people beyond their usual level of interest. Doug Saunders’ book “The Myth of the Muslim Tide” could for example be a nice challenge to find good visuals for.

What we hope we already achieved is to have whetted people’s appetite for more tasty data processing. If we were to visualize next year’s national election in Germany (beer! sausage!) and could make people so excited about the event that they’ll run to the polling place to cast their vote, we would not only have turned data into fun photos, but data into action. That’s food you can believe in.

 
Anna Lena Schiller and Lisa Rienermann are both freelance creatives, combining visual thinking with interesting content. Lisa works in the wide field between illustration, graphic design, and visual storytelling and has recently published books for children (the last one is about food and cooking). Anna Lena teaches visual thinking and does graphic recording and real-time visualizations of meetings and conference talks.