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NASA Map of Forests Provides Lessons for Information Design

Tim Maly analyses a stunning high-resolution map of America’s forests for its lessons on the subtle choices that go into good visual information design for multiple audiences.
March 15, 2012, 11am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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NASA's map, built from 265 million segments and accurate to within 30 meters, is intended to be a tool for understanding exactly how much carbon our trees can absorb. Based on data gathered by the Woods Hole Research Center's (WHRC) National Biomass and Carbon Dataset (NBCD), the map has been developed to a scale "which means that forest managers and researchers can track the disruption caused by things as small as a parking lot or a large building," writes Maly.

In developing the map however, Robert Simmon, art director of NASA's Earth Observatory, who published the map, wanted it to be accessible for non-experts as well. That meant paying close attention to how certain colors are interpreted and how patterns and relationships are conveyed.

According to Maly, "Good information design for the public is about clarity and impact. Simmon says that his primary goal as an information designer is to create 'almost an emotional reaction with people.' He wants to make that first 'getting what it is' as easy as possible while retaining as much information as possible in the display so the more you look at it, the more you see. 'It's a classical design sense of creating a hierarchy of information.'"

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Published on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 in Fast Company Co.Design
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