The infographics of xkcd

Log scale Most infographics on the web consist of generic graphics backed up with (lots of) poorly researched text.

When done well these informational graphics use charts, diagrams and illustrations to make complex ideas easier to comprehend. At their best the results can be quite illuminating.

Randall Munroe has produced more than a few great infographics for xkcd. His infographics can be broken down into three rough categories:

  1. Pure gag charts,
  2. Jokey graphics with a serious point, and…
  3. Well-researched highly informative graphics with some jokes sprinkled throughout.

For this post I’ve compiled the more informative types. There’s a list of some (but not all) of xkcd’s novelty graphs and charts at the end of this post.

Map of the Internet 195 (2006-12-08)

This first xkcd diagram maps out the IPv4 address space of 2006, with no jokey notes whatsoever.

Map of the Internet

The Electromagnetic Spectrum 273 (2007-06-06)

The second fully-fledged xkcd diagram is a much more amusing look at the electromagnetic spectrum, real and imagined. This is one of my favourites.

The electromagnetic spectrum

Height and Depth 482/485 (2008-09-29/2008-10-06)

Accurate on a log-scale, these diagrams depict items from a human scale to the limits of our perceptions. The results are reminiscent of the famous Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten.

Movie Narrative charts 657 (2009-11-02)

The interactions of characters in The Lord of the Rings films, the original Star Wars trilogy and others.

Movie narrative charts

Here’s a detail from the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back:

Movie narrative charts, a detail

Gravity wells 681 (2009-12-28)

To enter space from Earth you have to ‘climb’ its gravity well. The more massive the planet (or star) the deeper the gravity well. Other solar bodies (like small moons and asteroids) have wells so shallow you could literally leap from them into space.

Gravity wells

A detail:

Gravity well of Earth

Self-description 688 (2010-01-13)

A recursive, self-descriptive comic.

Self description

Google results for various phrases 715 (2010-03-17)

Numbers

Color survey results (2010-05-03)

Based on a survey of 222,500 users who named over 5 million colours, this graphic was published on the xkcd blog (or ‘blag’), along with some other interesting diagrams.

xkcd-satfaces-map-medium

  • Reminds me of: This graphic that classifies the meanings we see behind certain colours.

University website 773 (2010-07-30)

A Venn-diagram illustrating the vast gulf between what people who design university websites think is wonderful about their university, and what people who visit their websites are actually looking for.

University website

Map of Online Communities 802 (2010-10-06)

This fun map uses size to represent total social activity within a community (talking, playing, sharing etc.), loosely arranged by type and historical connections.

Online Communities 2 (detail)

This is just a detail. View the full version on xkcd.

Complete map of optimal Tic-Tac-Toe moves 832 (2010-12-10)

Or Noughts and Crosses to UK readers. I’m just including the half that shows all the moves for ‘O’ here:

Tic-Tac-Toe (Just the moves for O)

Radiation dose chart (2011-03-19)

This chart appeared on the xkcd blog (and was later updated) to provide context in the days when the Fukushima disaster was unfolding.

Radiation dose chart

(I wonder if this chart provided the inspiration for the similar and famous money chart that came later in the year?)

Days of the week 930 (2011-07-27)

Polar graph of what stuff happens on which days, based on number of Google results for phrases like “Company meeting on <day>”

Days of the week

Money chart 980 (2011-11-21)

This is almost certainly the most important and profound infographic Randall has produced for xkcd.

It’s impossible to comprehend the huge numbers that are casually reported in the news every day. Like a child for whom everyone over 20 is ‘really old’, we have trouble understanding the differences between millions, billions and trillions. This impressive megachart helps to bring some perspective.

Money (small)

There’s a huge zoomable version of this chart for you to explore. Every little section is a noteworthy infographic in its own right, from the dollars…

The dollar values of various dinners for four

…to the billions of dollars…

Money - Billionaires

…and the trillions of dollars.

Money - trillions

The 20 most played Christmas songs 988 (2011-12-09)

Every year, American culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ childhoods.

Tradition

Lakes and oceans 1040 (2012-04-09)

A to-scale comparison of the depths of great lakes and oceans.

Lakes and oceans

Exoplanets 1071 (2012-06-20)

All 786 known planets (as of June 2012) to scale.

Exoplanets

New extrasolar planets are being discovered all the time. The current count as of this blog post (January 2013) is 859.

(I’m saddened that this is comic 1071, not 1701.)

The United Shapes 1079 (2012-07-09)

What the shape of each of the US states reminds Randall Munroe of.

United Shapes

Your central visual field 1080 (2012-07-11)

Vision related facts, arranged so that they all fit inside your field of vision.

Visual field

A History of The United States Congress 1127 (2012-10-29)

A look at the ebb and flow of the partisan and ideological makeup of the US Congress.

The United States Congress

I’ll be honest: I haven’t studied this one sufficiently to confidently claim that I properly understand it. Try the Explain xkcd wiki for guidance.

Up Goer Five 1133 (2012-11-12)

A diagram of a Saturn V rocket, labelled using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language.

Up Goer Five, cropped

This diagram inspired the creation of an Up-Goer Five text editor and the #upgoerfive trend on Twitter. I wrote about this recently on this blog.

Calendar of Meaningful Dates 1140 (2012-11-28)

Each date’s size represents how often it is referred to by name in English-language books since 2000, according to the Google Ngram Viewer.

Calendar of meaningful dates

Unsurprisingly September 11th looms large, but interestingly the 11th on every other month is a particularly uneventful date. Perhaps we subconsciously avoid it because of the strong negative association.


Other noteworthy xkcd graphics

More charts and diagrams I didn’t want to omit, but which are more subjective and gag-oriented. By date:


Links of interest

Elsewhere on this blog

Copyright note

Randall Munroe releases all of his xkcd images under a Creative Commons licence (CC-BY-NC to be exact) and I’m using them here in that spirit.