Sonya Clibbens

Britistics: Bringing statistics to life

Have you ever wondered how many people in the UK own dogs, how sceptical we are as a nation about the paranormal or how much time the average Briton spends watching TV each day? That might seem like an unusually diverse set of statistics, but there's one internet resource that can answer each and every one of those questions at the click of a button. It's called Britistics.

Have you ever wondered how many people in the UK own dogs, how sceptical we are as a nation about the paranormal or how much time the average Briton spends watching TV each day? That might seem like an unusually diverse set of statistics, but there’s one internet resource that can answer each and every one of those questions at the click of a button. It’s called Britistics.

Created by the self-confessed statistics-lover Matthew Rowett in 2011, this unique data visualisation project uses official British statistics (from reputable sources like the Office for National Statistics and OnePoll) to create an all-encompassing picture of modern Britain. Or rather, a series of pictures of modern Britain. You see, what makes this resource so fresh and exciting for me, as a graphic designer, is the way in which all the dry statistical information is laid out. There’s no two ways around it… Britistics is a work of graphical genius.

Available as a PDF and already heavily utilised by a number of media outlets, Britistics’ tagline is ‘the United Kingdom visualised’ – and that’s precisely what you get. Using a selective set of cultural statistics, all the numbers and references in the document are related only to the UK – with no mention of or comparison to any other nationalities (or, indeed, the world at large). That means that, when you have read through the document, and seen all of this focused information, you will end up with a clear portrait of modern Britain.

But, actually, the statistics are only part of the story. The thing that makes Britistics really stand out from the crowd – and the reason it’s become such a success in such a short amount of time – is the way the statistics are organised and presented graphically. With a series of very simple black, white and greyscale images, the visualisation of the data helps it to jump off the page.

Rather than simply having long lists of seven-figure-numbers separated into rigidly-defined demographic groups, the statistical information here is presented in a far more interesting and engaging way. So, for example, you’ll find basic facts taking an unusually concise form like ‘If the UK were 100 people’, while you’ll see disparate statistics put together under bold, emotive headers like ‘Who We Are’… and then split again into eye-catching sub-groups like ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Religion’.

To give you a clear sense of exactly what I mean, here are some examples of pages I really love…


1.’Adayinthelife’

One of the simplest pages of the lot, this is also one of the most effective. Just look at the information that’s here: with a list of average times when people do things throughout the day, this could easily be presented in a long, dry list. But the simple addition of a single, eye-catching illustration, as well as some entertaining headlines dotted around the edge, makes the statistics not only more palatable, but more interesting too!

2.’MrsandMrsAverage’

Just like the previous page, there’s nothing particularly fascinating or groundbreaking about the statistics on display here (it’s all ‘annual earnings’, ‘average height’ etc.) but the simple gender illustrations, coupled with the way the facts are linked to different body parts, makes it extremely engaging. The use of a throwaway statistic at the start (‘number of hat-wearers’) also helps reel people in before moving onto the nitty-gritty.


3. ‘Weekly spending’

On first glance, it doesn’t look like much – but this page is very clever. The information listed here has the potential (or perhaps even the right) to be as dull as dishwater, and yet it isn’t. Why? Because of the design. Not only have the stats been split into a fifty-pence-shaped pie chart, but each section has been illustrated with carefully-chosen and relevant graphics, drawing your eye in from the start. It makes all the difference.

4.WhoWeAre

One of the most stat-heavy pages in the book, this is also one of the most conventional pages in terms of information display (note the standard graphs!) – and yet it still manages to be eye-catching and engaging. I really like how stats have been put together, allowing you draw conclusions that you might not otherwise think about (for example, that Britain has more ‘non-white’ people than ‘non-heterosexuals’). But it’s not just window dressing: the graphics also makes the statistics stand out a mile, so facts are at your fingertips.


5.TimeonOurFeet

The stats displayed on this page demonstrate men’s and women’s time use, including time spent travelling, eating and drinking and time spent sleeping. Graphically, this is one of the most ambitious in the document… yet it doesn’t feel it’s distracting from the stats. Actually, it’s just helping to group the info in a logical and clear way, making them far more accessible to the average reader. Again, the small simplistic images within really help you find what you’re looking for quickly.

Of course, I know these techniques are nothing new – Florence Nightingale was using ‘infographics’ back in the 19th century to illustrate causes of mortality during the Crimean War, while Harry Beck used the same technique in the early 20th century to iconic effect on the London Underground – but I do think this format is more important today than ever. The fact is, people are no longer used to reading huge chunks of text… attention spans are dwindling and people expect to be able to access information quickly and easily.

It’s for those very reasons that I think Britistics is my favourite graphical resource of the last couple of years. After all, any simple text document that can present reams and reams of important statistical information in a way that doesn’t make the iPad-toting Joe Bloggs nod off has to be very special indeed.