Genealogy Data Viz

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Earlier this summer, the studio got a real treat of a project. A repeat client of ours came to us with a personal project – a genealogy data visualization. They and 70+ members of their immediate and (very) extended family were gathering in early July, and they had signed up to design and order the t-shirts for everyone.

Our client had found a radial genogram online and wanted to use it as a model for the visualization. A handful of hours spent futzing around in Adobe Illustrator later, and we had the above genogram. The entire process made me giddy; there is little I love as much as taking a unique data set and turning it into something beautiful.

Family trees and other representations of genealogy come with their own bucket of interesting design challenges. They can tell you all you need to know about a family and also nothing at all about the individuals’ lives. Devoid of geographic, cultural, or chronological context, family trees can rapidly become art projects. The resulting graphics are rarely clean, harmonious, or without flaws or bias. I’ve given up on many family tree projects over the years for this reason*; in a poetic fashion, this makes them an apt visualization of the messiness of human relationships.

Our particular genogram was going to show five generations and over 120 people. To keep things simpler, we opted not to include past or present spouses, just the direct family lines. After examining some of our spatial options, we chose to make each generation a complete ring and thus the genogram a cohesive circle (Arrangement #1). The different branches of the family may live states apart, but on the t-shirts, they are neighbors.

Throughout the project, I accumulated a mental database of genealogy visualization touch stones. My favorite is without a doubt artist Maissa Toulet’s retro-sassy family trees:

I also recommend:

* In middle school, I tried very hard to make a comprehensive family tree of European royal families. When Wikipedia explained to me just how inter-related they all were, especially in earlier centuries, I realized that the tree would have to be 3D. I gave up at that point. Years later, I learned that someone else had a similar idea and has executed it beautifully.

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Yana Stannik is a technical illustrator at Fat Pencil Studio.