Visualizing Data: the Sampras & Federer Title Race

With Roger Federer’s recent win of the 2009 French Open, he is now tied with Pete Sampras for holding the most Grand Slam titles — fourteen. Although the two athletes have arrived at the same destination, how do their respective journeys compare with one another? With this question fueling my curiosity, I set out to create a rich visualization of the data to add some depth to this story.

The final product is available as follows. For additional notes about the techniques used to create these graphs, keep on reading.

Here are some tips & techniques I employed to put this together.

Have Your Data Ready

Before diving into Illustrator (or whatever your tool of choice may be), spend the necessary time finding all of the data you will need for your graph. Go the extra mile to arrange and label everything properly — you may return to the data at a much later time and will be glad you did yourself the favor. Aside from reaping the benefits of good organization, this step is additionally helpful in keeping the grunt work of data-fetching separate from the creative requirements of the task.

Start with the Simplest Graphs Possible

An elegant, attractive graph is seldom created from scratch. There are usually a number of tried & tested variations that must be wrestled with before arriving at the final product. With this in mind, a good first step is creating some bare-bones, stripped down graphs to get bird’s eye view of the data. This phase is all about finding the approach that will best server your original vision. Sketches work great in this stage.

What is the story you want to tell with your data? This is an important question to keep in mind, as different visualization approaches will yield different results. Play around with things. See what looks good as well as which data comparisons are intuitive and interesting. Seek feedback from friends or colleagues who might offer a valuable opinion.

Using the Grid

Before long, it will be time to create your final, finished product. At this stage, the very most important thing you can do to keep things looking straight and orderly is use Illustrator’s grid feature. You’ll want to make grids visible (CTRL/CMD + “), as well as enable “Snap to Grid” (CTRL/CMD + SHIFT + “). Additionally, you may want to go into Illustrator’s preferences to customize the grid spacing and subdivision width (which you can modify at any point).

Another useful tip to keep in mind when using grids extensively is enabling Overprint Preview (CTRL/CMD + ALT + SHIFT + Y). This will have the gridlines appear on top of all objects & paths, allowing you to eliminate any guessing that might otherwise be required in keeping things properly arranged.

Using Layers Wisely

Keeping your objects arranged in layers is a huge time-saver when dealing with moderately complex projects in Illustrator. This was especially true in my case of creating four separate graphs, each of which contained separate groups of objects. For example: if I wanted to modify the color of the Roger Federer graph plots, I’d only need to target the layer “Federer” and all plots (on each graph) would become active.

Layers can also be locked, combined, or temporarily hidden to make document management easier.

Go Forth and Visualize

And that’s it! Combined with a simple bit of color and typography, you can transform any crude visualization into an attractive graph. Keep in mind that data in itself can be rather inert; though when arranged in a conscientious manner it can tell an interesting story. Hopefully the techniques above can be of use in recreating your own graphs of a similar nature.