Why do we visualise using circles?

I should clarify – if the books of Tufte and Few are your visualisation bibles then you may not enjoy this post. Rightly so, the two authors I’ve just mentioned are seen as the foremost proponents of the field of creating professional, analytical dashboard visualisations.

But for those who enjoy data visualisation as data art, who appreciate the aesthetics of data visualisation over and above the rigorous application of best analytical practices, then, like me, you’ll know that the data visualisation field spreads far wider. So I was excited to see the publication of a new book from Manuel Lima, the Book of Circles.

I have done a lot of visualisation using circles – more than I’d realised until I came to contemplating this book and the review, with all of the below featuring in my portfolio, visualising subjects as diverse as football results, 1980s music, Donald Trump’s tweets and animal counts in a zoo inventory.

To summarise this book I was able to read it from cover to cover on a long train journey, which means that (a) it wasn’t too text-heavy that I couldn’t complete in a couple of hours and (b) I was captivated, and once started didn’t want to put it down.  If you don’t want to read further than my overall rating, then my key takeaway is that as a result of reading the book, I wanted to do three things:

  1. Read it all over again
  2. Go away and do some (more) circular visualisations, inspired by those in the book
  3. Recommend this book and tell everyone how good it is.

And I’m doing these three things right away, starting with number 3.

The first thing to note is that this leans more towards a “coffee table” book than a technical reference book. The majority of the book reads like a gallery, with full or half-page high quality visualisations and gallery-style descriptions. But, despite this, strange to say that my favourite page is the page below:


The contents page “taxonomises” circle visualisations into seven different types, with different sub-types within them. Instantly from this I can reference those that i’m familiar with and those less familiar with, and can see potential ideas for adapting work I’ve done to fit a new circular visualisation type. It means that if you want to derive inspiration from concentric ring visualisations (for example), you know just where to turn. Though I challenge you not to be drawn in to all the other visualisation types in the book in the meantime. I do wonder though, which one would best represent my concentric circular bump chart? Maybe an idea for volume two?!

The first fifty or so pages are just the right amount of theory to discuss the aesthetics and psychological use of circles over the years before launching fully into the visualisations for the remainder of the book. But these introductory pages still contain many more examples of circles through the ages. Particularly relevant is the explanation of the metaphor of the circle in four ways:

  1. Perfection (simplicity, balance, harmony, symmetry etc)
  2. Unity (wholeness, completion, containment etc)
  3. Movement (continual force, rotation, cyclicality, periodicity, etc)
  4. Infinity (eternity, immensity, etc)

Lima’s examples throughout the rest of the book span art, astronomy, biology, cartography and of course the more recent notion of data visualisation. Allowing for coverage of such a wide range of genres, he intersperses ancient, classic and modern examples throughout to show how our concept of circular visualisations has lasted over the centuries. I’ve toyed with the idea of picking some favourite visualisations from within the book to show you but I’m not sure that’s fair on the original artists. Beauty is obviously in the eye of the beholder and if you read this while leaving preconceived ideas of data visualisation rules to one side, you’ll see several hundred eye-catching visualisations.

Instead, I’ll leave this circular image – the one chosen for the book’s cover, and suggest this would make a  fine addition to the shelves of any data art enthusiast


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s