Visualizing Very Large Numbers with

Method 1: 10216 as a quantity of stuff

One way of thinking about big numbers is as an amount of stuff. This will help, because the difference between macro and micro allows us to throw away lots and lots of orders of magnitude, and it’s these powers of 10 that stand between us and understanding how big this number really is. First of all, let’s recall some quantities that will be helpful. One mole of carbon masses 12 grams, there are approximately 6 billion people on earth, and the earth masses 6*1024 kilograms. So here is one method of visualization: 10216 is so big that, if you had that many atoms of carbon, you could give every person on the planet a lump of coal that weighs as much as the earth. Now let’s look at how big that described quantity actually is:

6*109 people * 6*1027 grams of coal/person * 1/12 moles/gram * 6*1023 atoms/mole = around 1060 atoms

Shit! That’s way too low, and by way too low, I mean WAY too low. But it will serve to impress for now. Since I’ve already overly taxed my powers of visualizations with that “Earth’s mass of coal” thing, let’s give up on this and try method 2 for a bit.


2. Visualize numbers whenever possible

Even though those examples aren’t using data visualizations, the icons and illustrations used do help us connect more easily to the topic.

If you can use a data visualization, please do. It will allow your audience to go beyond merely reading a number to making sense of it.

Related: What is Data Visualization? (Definitions, Examples, Best Practices)

If the number happens to be small, like 20 or less, you can use a pictogram to show the actual number.

This example includes a pictogram showing the number of days (out of the total days in a month, which is great context).

It also includes a donut chart, which brings me to percentages. If you can use a pictogram to show percents too. Notice how this helps you really see the number in a different way?

When communicating percentages, it’s often very helpful to express them as rates, for example instead of 50% you could say 1 in 2. Here is an example of a pictogram that helps audiences see an approximate rate coupled with the actual percentage.

How to Visualize a Percentage

There are many ways to visualize percentages; as a part of a whole they can be shown in a number of different formats.

One of the most common and recognizable ways to visualize a percentage is a pie chart, of which donut charts are a variation.

Stacked bar graphs are another way to show percentages.

Pie Chart

Pie charts are some of the most recognizable, and some would say, most-overused types of visualization.

This example breaks a pie chart down progressively more and more:

Pros: Pie charts are recognizable and pretty unive

Pros: Pie charts are recognizable and pretty universally understood. One of the most effective ways to use them is to show one “slice” and how it relates to the whole.

Cons: The more slices you have, the harder a pie chart is to understand. They take up more space than some alternatives. They can be difficult to understand precisely without labels. Difficult to compare trends between multiple pie charts.

Donut Chart

Donut charts are the same as a pie chart, they are just missing the center.

This eases some of the cons of pie charts; for example, they can be easier to understand because removing the center makes different segments easier to compare.

There is also more room in the middle to label the chart.

These donut charts are used alongside a proportional area chart showing the perceived corruption in every country in the world.

The donut charts help explain the percentage of the world that is perceived as more vs. less corrupt.

Pros: Relies less on area and more on the size of

Pros: Relies less on area and more on the size of the arc, making them easier to understand at a glance. Offer space to add labels on the inside.

Cons: Still difficult to understand with lots of slices, or to understand trends between multiple donut charts.

Stacked Bar Graph

A 100% stacked bar graph shows percentages of a whole within a single bar or a set of bars.

These are particularly useful if you need to show a comparison between multiple datasets.

Unlike pie charts and donut charts, where the circular form makes it hard to compare percentages, the stacked bar graph makes this easier.

This interactive visual compares creative routines of famous writers, artists, and musicians. All the creatives had the same number of hours in a day, but this chart shows how differently they used them.

Pros: Easier to compare between datasets than pie

Pros: Easier to compare between datasets than pie charts.

Cons: The 100% scale may not be as obvious in a bar as it is in a pie chart. Harder to compare segments the more segments there are.

Option 5: Portion of an image

The two-category pie chart and donut chart are special cases of a more general strategy, which is to show a portion of an image.

Create your own visualizations

Everyone can access the Displayr document used to create these visualizations here. To modify the visualizations with your own data, click on each visualization and either change the Inputs or modify the underlying R code (Properties > R CODE).

How to Visualize a List

Sometimes your standout “data” is actually a list of items. Icon lists and bubble clouds are commonly used to visualize lists.

Icon List

An icon list is exactly what it sounds like: a list, with each item accompanied by an icon. While not exactly visualizing the data – it’s still very text-heavy – the icons can help break up the text.

In this humorous example, beards are ranked in terms of their trustworthiness. Every beard in the list is accompanied by a simple icon showing the type of beard.

Pros: A simple to create visualization for when yo

Pros: A simple to create visualization for when your only data is a list.

Cons: Not ideal for longer lists. Not the most organized way to present a list of data that has some kind of scale.

Bubble Cloud

A bubble cloud is a visualization where every item on a list is within its own “bubble.”

They can also be plotted on a chart, in which case it is called a bubble chart. Though organized somewhat differently, bubble clouds work very similarly to proportional area charts, as their area is used for comparison purposes.

This example is pretty interesting, grouping bubbles by approximate location in the EU.

It uses color and scale to differentiate population size, and a donut chart around the border of each bubble to show the percentage of the population that smokes.

Pros: Great for displaying, grouping, and comparin

Pros: Great for displaying, grouping, and comparing large sets of data.

Cons: It can be hard to get text to fit inside smaller bubbles, resulting in some legibility issues.

4. If its numbers of people, especially large numbers of people, be sure to tell the story in other ways too

Once numbers start getting really high, definitely 100,000 and above, people really struggle to connect to them to real-life in any meaningful way.

If we are talking about people’s experiences, we should go beyond the numbers to make sure we’re highlighting the human elements.

Here is a very simple example.

Don’t you agree that the infographic above which cites a huge number of students is not nearly as effective as the one below which includes individual students’ stories?

When we’re talking about a really big number of people who are suffering, such as 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., we need to be hyper aware of a phenomenon known as psychic numbing. Truth is, as the number grows, people’s compassion is unable to keep up, and they will care less and less.

This is a major obstacle if we are wanting to motivate people to take some meaningful action to reduce this suffering. People always connect better to individuals and their personal stories, and to emotional aspects, than they do to numbers, according to expert psychologist Dr. Paul Slovic.

RelatedHow to Tell a Story With Data: A Guide for Beginners

Again, visuals can go a long way to help people connect with the numbers. In particular, photos of individual people, especially their faces, can help elicit emotions that are essential for understanding why the big number really matters.

Do you connect more with the statistic that there are 9 million LGBT Americans, for example, or with the photo below of one who is openly gay?

When we visualize numbers and when we make them relatable, we can make our infographic more meaningful and more compelling for our audiences.

With Venngage, you can get started immediately by choosing one of our many infographic templates, then easily practice communicating numbers in the way that works best for your audience.


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