Time frame: One week


I saw this work of mine as an art piece that explores data visualization in the 3D world, and the topic itself was developed in response to the growing concern of overpopulation on our planet. American artist, Eve Mosher's work, the HighWaterLine served as a great source of inspiration for me.  

The artwork is composed of 15 layers of bass wood panels. The top 14 layers each represent a specific year from 1950 with a five-year interval from each other. Each panel has several parts cut out in the shape that resemble our five continents.  And the size of the shapes was calculated according to the population of that year it represents. A viewer can easily get a sense of the growth (or zero-growth) of population on each continent over a span of 70 years. 

(Read below for detailed documentation.)





I grew more and more interested in data visualization. Last week I proposed a physical data visualization project that tells how world population evolves after World War II. This project also relates to the core concept of the book <Limits to Growth>, which argues that (primarily) economic and population growth cannot continue forever and need to be checked.

The initial data was found on UN’s Division of Population. It is a comprehensive pool of data specifying world population by continent since 1950. I simplified the dataset(Simplified Data by Continent) for my own use with an increment of every 5 years.

I proposed something like this:

I would do the same for each continent and put them all on a plate/tray. The idea was to make visible the growth while having the structure seem precarious by making it tapered (this also go along with the logic that the more recent the data, the more up or closer it should be to the human eye).

And then came the questions:






How to represent the continents? Exact contour or abstract outlines? 

I put the shape of the continents in Vectorworks and immediately felt that too much detail of the outlines would be unnecessary, especially if I were to have a dozen layers. So I decided to use a more abstract approach and traced the contour using pretty straight-forward poly-lines in VW.


How to match data with visualization? 

Area (in sq. feet) of Continent Shape =/(parallels with) Total Continental Population

For example, I set the polygon of Africa to an area of 0.228 sq. feet at the start, while its population in 1950 is 228,000.

Offset tool only uses a distance parameter. How to control the size of the shape, or more accurately, its area by offsetting? 

I didn’t find a 100% precise way to do this. But I did noticed that the information board in VW does provide an “area” of sq. inch for each closed curve. I set the distance parameter to pretty small length(0.01-0.02 inch) and then when the area of the shape matches the population data.

As the size of each continent goes up, do they all have the same shape or their shape changes as the offset morphs them? 

I drew the continents and offset the curves and found myself very much in love with the morphing which is given by the offset tool automatically. And the problem with the other way is that the larger shape does not always contains the smaller one:




Should there be texts that help with understanding?

I did have texts to display the data in my VW sketch now. I think data visualization can obscure reality if not given proper explanation or notation. I decided that my work should not obscure facts.

What material to use? (Primarily debating between wood and plexy)

As it turns out, the shapes really look like the growing ring of a tree. I’m very inclined to using wood now. And also, I think I may use a negative approach to what I proposed — cut the continent out from the panels, and stick the panels one layer upon another so that the hollowed part actually tells the story, rather than what previously was the concrete part.






Continuing with last week’s steps, I went in to the fabrication phase of this project.

Materials bought included:

1/8″ * 6″ * 12″ (basswood board) x 10   &  Wood Glue


In VectorWorks, I made 15 new drawings with their size in proportion to the actual population data every 5 years. These drawings would be used to create the layers of the whole object. 

Because one board can be used to make two layers, I placed two drawings in one AI file so that the laser cutter can cut for me two layers at a time.

Here is the a clip of the cutting process.






I then placed the cut layers together to see the effects.

The placement needs some more precision than I thought. Because the edge of the wood is not always aligning with one another, I have to manually adjust the panel’s positions in order for them to be in place.


Then I started to glue them.


I originally wanted the data to be etched on the first layer where the project title is. But I interviewed some of my classmates and they all say the clean and simple aesthetics on the surface is something they like a lot. So I changed my idea and decided to make an information board that can be attached to the side of the object.

In order for the data to make more sense, I want each row of data to align with its corresponding layer. In this regard, the height of each row would be exactly the thickness of the board. In the end, it looks like this:

And finally, I also made a bottom panel to indicate the which continent is which since some of the viewers say they are guessing the continents.

Some reminders for the future:

  • Raster etching and vector cutting can be done in one task but you have to make sure in the setting that you check the “Raster etching & Vector cutting combined” option.  AND, make sure there is NO STROKE for any object that you wanna etch, because stroke is taken as command to cut. “Europe”, for example, on the bottom panel is cut and burnt because I didn’t get rid of the stroke of the letters, but I did stop the machine in time so other continents were “safe”. 
  • The smokey effects of the wood-cutting can create a type of aesthetics
  • Wood is expensive at Blick Art Material. Buy early from Rockler.com
  • Make sure the file is not a “linked” file after importing the VW file in AI, otherwise you are not gonna be able to address each object individually.