Death and Taxes 2014 … and beyond!

Originally posted at

Ten years ago, I created the first in what would become a hugely popular series of annual visualizations of the federal budget, “Death and Taxes.”

It was, in retrospect, garbage:

There was no reason for it to be anything but garbage. Unbalanced design; no attention to typography. Back then, I wasn’t a designer and I didn’t know anything about the federal government. (My day job was selling faux vintage bric-a-brac to identity deficient 20-somethings at Urban Outfitters.) It was 2004 and infographics wasn’t even a word.

But if you can’t be the best at something, be the first. Prior to Death and Taxes, the federal budget visualizations were confined to the bounds of a Power Point slide. The pie charts and bar charts worked for the top line figures, but were incompatible with the 1,000-page beast of a budget the govertment put out each year. The only reason the chart became a poster was be cause it was just too large to fit on any computer screen. It still is.

The image became a brief internet hit two years later, in 2006, and I started doing one each year. The poster progressed in terms of design, density, and accuracy, too, as I started to develop a sense of how the government worked.

Along the way, I became known as an infographics guy, which developed into some great opportunities and partnerships. Infographics themselves rose to prominence, further expanding the poster’s (and my own) reach. Eventually I ended up here as Creative Director of, a long way from selling faux vintage bric-a-brac at Urban Outfitters.

But with my own personal development and opportunies came new demands for my time, and the annual research and production of the Death and Taxes poster is not something I could continue. In fact, I didn’t manage to get a poster out for 2013. But it was clear from the emails and feedback that this project just could not fade into the internet ether. It was too important. There is still, after all these year, no more open and accessible record of government spending.

Fortunately, around that time I was approached by Nathaniel of Time Plots about continuing the posters’ production. If you don’t know Time Plots, they are the glorious intersection of government, data-vis and posters. Seriously, that is all they do, and they are the best at it. I knew the annual Death and Taxes project would be a natural fit there.

So starting with the 2014 edition of Death and Taxes and going forward, Nathan and his crack team will be handling all development and production of the poster. I have a few of the new posters myself and they have already innovated on the concept and design. The Death and Taxes project is an exercise in transparency, accessibility and design of the most important document the federal government puts out each year.

It is also solely supported by sales of the poster, so I encourage you all to support the Death and Taxes project buy purchasing a poster this year. Your walls will thank you, and so will I.

The 2014 poster.

Death and Taxes 2014: US Federal Budget

Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.


Aug 2013
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The Cinemacation of Gavin-Cole

So much to people’s surprise, I have a teenage son and am charged with raising and guiding this boy into manhood.  As expected, it comes with all the cliched challenges your hear about and a second helping of ones you don’t.

One thing I have learned is that there are lessons they won’t learn no matter how many times you repeat them.  Some of these lessons can be demonstrated, but some cannot.  That is where movies come in.  An impressionable 14 year old paired with movies that make an impression can seed the values of an confident and capable young man.  At least that is my theory.

Gavin is 14, which is certainly an age where he wants to do his own thing, but fortunately is still an age where I can tell him what to do.  Essentially he HAS to watch a movie of my choosing every week or he does not get any of his electronics.

With great power, comes great responsibility in movie selection.  There is numerous ways to screw this up.  I could opt for overly moralistic movies with clear ‘values’ but this would put the teenager off.  It would come across as lessons instead of entertainment.  I could also find movies I think he would like… what the kids are into… but this would not be challenging enough and an unchallenged mind does not grow.

I could also do what my own dad tried to do with me, select movies that were ‘great works of art’ but were also totally alien to my sensibilities.  My dad was a cinephile and likely burned a sizable chunk of Netflix’s archive onto an endless stream of DVDs.  The movies he had me watch were the Ingmar Bergman and Akirosawa cannons among others.  Only rarely was there a movie selected that was made after I was born.  I did see some good movies, but my attention was not kept, it was too far out of my grasp.  With Gavin, I won’t make that mistake.

So the list below is the movies he and we have watched.  I try to mix it up between movies that are just inside his attention span to plant some seeds, but far enough away that they will resonate… with confusion if nothing else.  And to make the excercise enduring, I throw in some classic comedies that also form the basis of so many jokes in his own media watching that he does not get.  Always good to get a foundation.

I should also note that I do not ask Gavin about the movie afterwords.  It’s not a test, just an exercise.

The list, in order.  If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Jul 2013


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I wasn’t planning on posting this, but since Brad made it public, I might as well.  FeldThoughts is a site I visit a few times a week.  One of few, so when the site design was radically altered (not for the better) I was a bit disappointed.  After I was able to filter out my irrational objections to change, I sent some annotated feedback to Brad.

click for largeness



In short, the overall aesthetics are good.  The designer, J Cole Morrison has demonstrated some talent here for sure.  And while the enthusiasm in design is present, the focus is not.  I see this a lot.  Too much attention paid above the fold combined with other inefficiencies do not add up to a sum of their parts.  Great design is holistic.  See Jerry Colona’s blog for a masterful look at focus and branding.

Jun 2013

audit, design

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Hierarchy of Designer Skills

This post originally appeared on the blog.

When I evaluate a designer for potential inclusion into the Visually Marketplace, I have very little time to assess their work and portfolio. Usually, fewer than 10 seconds. This may sound like far too short of a time to get a sense of someone’s work, but in most cases the decision is obvious.

In less obvious cases, I work from the hierarchy below to see if they pass the test.

I created this specifically for infographics, which is the medium we work in most — but it may apply to other design disciplines as well. As a designer becomes more skilled, they progress up this pyramid, usually – but not always – in this order. Let’s go through these skills one by one.


The effective use of color is one of the most basic skills to learn. An inappropriate use of color is the largest and most immediate red flag I spot. Do the pallets fit the mood and tone of the content? Are the colors overly muted, too contrasted, or just off? These are some of most common mistakes I find.


The use of space is very important for infographics, as there is a lot of information to convey with limited real estate. The first mistakes I look for are the overcrowding of elements and not letting them breathe. Then I look for the use or non-use of white space. Efficiency of space is important in an infographic, but if it’s too dense, the viewer will find it off-putting.


Effectively working with type is a skill that can take a long time to master, but an understanding of the basics is required for any successful design. Choosing the right font will only get you so far. Appropriate weighting, leading, and tracking should be applied every time. Kern those headlines, too.


You would be surprised how far a designer can get with stock images and icons. But to take it to the next level, a designer should be able to transform or create new graphics. This certainly includes traditional skills like illustration, but also modern skills like Photoshopping. I personally can draw slightly better than my five year old, but I can certainly create anything in my mind’s eye using Photoshop. This skill, above others, takes lots and lots of practice and there are no shortcuts. A high degree of customization skill will provide you a near infinite tool box.


Being really creative involves having the design say more than merely the pixels on the screen or paper. Creative design makes connections between elements, ideas, and concepts that have not been thought of by the client, or the viewer. It often involves asking yourself, “Is this the best way to represent this?” and “How can I say more, without adding more”.


Many of the projects in the Visually Marketplace have a journalist assigned to them, to craft the story. But the final product is always more unified when the designer is also a storyteller. This doesn’t mean they create the story, but design is a language, and a collection of pretty words does not make an interesting book. Successful designer-storytellers pay attention to the evolving tone of the narrative and incorporate that into their work. The client may be too close to the subject matter to be objective, and so the designer needs to use the right tone, structure and imagery to guide the audience through the graphic effectively.


If you have got a handle on all of the above (or below), then consider yourself a very good designer. Now, master being able to bring those skills to a wildly diverse range of styles, and you will be an invaluable designer. Specialization is good, but can be limiting, especially in a freelance world where clients can come from all walks of life. Can you create something that is minimal and clean? Loud and audacious? Suitable for a 19th century antique book seller? Or a 21st century aerospace company?

Every designer has their own preferences, but it’s good to get outside your comfort zone. Force yourself if you have to. I cut my teeth in design doing concert posters for a local music venue. I did one for every band that came in the door, whether they were death metal, experimental noise, traditional singer-songwriters, or hippie jam bands. Hundreds of posters later, I have picked up a deep collection of tips, tricks, and ideas that affect my personal preferences.

Jun 2013

design, visually

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How to Go Viral Every Time

Originally appeared on the blog.

Everyone wants their content to go viral. It’s the holy grail of marketing. It can turn companies and product into the talk of the town, even if they sell toiletries. The ROI on content with more than a million views is almost unmeasurable. So how do you make sure your content will go viral?

The secret is simple. Be incredibly lucky.

Luck is the third piece of the virality triumvirate and obviously the hardest to bank on. In fact, you cannot achieve true virality without it. With great content and powerful tactics you can certainly get millions of views on a consistent basis, but if lady luck doesn’t give her blessing, you will end up with a good – but not great – ROI.

So let’s take a look at these three puzzle pieces and see how they fit together so you know where to put your efforts.

There are different levels of viral success, from a few thousand views to Gangnam Style. It’s important to understand what you can reasonably achieve with the right amount of effort and to set your expectations accordingly. The chart below outlines what you need in order to achieve consistent results. Consistency is important because virality is, by nature, all about the outliers — and you can’t set expectations on outliers.


To get any type of fire going on a consistent basis, you need the right tools and expertise. The most important is your platform. You just put up some content that you think will do well, how many eyeballs can you access to jump start the viral loop? This can be YouTube subscribers, Twitter followers, blog and newsletter subscribers, and main website traffic.

CollegeHumor has a huge YouTube platform of almost 4 million subscribers. This alone is enough to get the first 100,000 views on their videos inside of a day. This huge subscriber count is an outlier and would push the slopes of the above chart to the right, but it still does not guarantee virality. Their content is consistently funny and well produced and they have vaulted 16 videos above 10 million views. However, their total uploads number 1,900, making 10 million views a 100-to-one shot. You can’t escape the luck factor.

If you are looking to create dozens of videos with over a million views, then at the very minimum, you need a platform of this magnitude.

What if you have no platform? No YouTube subscribers, no audience, no tribe? Then you are like most people and everyone starting out. There is no roadmap of what to do here other than hustle and be smart. Social voting sites like Reddit and HackerNews will allow great content to flourish… some of the time. Sometimes, the very best content will get lost in the noise and never be heard from again, or it will resurface a week or a month later as the biggest thing ever. Trying to make sense of this will drive you mad.

The lucky outliers will destroy your expectations

Remember Rebecca Black? Her Friday video has topped anything by College Humor and her 33 total uploads have netted her 244,000 YouTube subscribers: a very respectable platform. But her Friday video was an outlier and with the absence of any real platform power (at the time), and questionable content, pulled in 48 million views. The obvious major factor here was just luck. She has done six music videos since, each receiving fewer views that the previous, with the latest one receiving 1.2 million views.

So if you do achieve some viral success and want to replicate it, take a hard look at the factors that lead to your virality. If it does look like luck was a major factor, then avoid a strategy that includes “winning the lottery twice.”

Even if you think your content is great, do not be seduced by outliers. The video from DollarShaveClub is hilarious and with a minimal platform would be enough to get to 100,000 views. But 10 million? That requires a substantial amount of luck and it’s likely they will not repeat that level of success even with better content. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try, as 100k views can still provide an exceptional ROI.



Apr 2013


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Decode DC: Interview with Andrea Seabrook

I’m a big fan of Andrea Seabrook‘s work so it was really awesome that I got to do an interview with her for Decode DC. It’s about the Death and Taxes project.  I gotta say, it’s strange to here my voice in between someone’s as recognizable as Andreas.  How did I do?

Mar 2013

personal, projects

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F%#cking Dave McClure

After catching up on some TWiST I felt compelled to make some choice edits on Dave McClure’s recent episode.

Warning, may contain swearing.

Mar 2013

lol, personal

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In Search of a Sweet Death

As others have said, this is the “most depressing infographic ever,” but I don’t think its that bad.  Inspired and based on the Why Doctors Die article and Radio Lab podcast, this is my visual take on that material.  Coincidentally the production of this graphic was interrupted by my own father-in-law passing away from cancer.



Mar 2013
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Charting Female Popstars just released this interactive that charts all the Female artists who have achieved a #1 album since 1985

I was curious about how big the current pop stars are vs those my generation, like Madonna and such.  While the data isn’t in on the longevity of Beyonce, she is off to a good start.  Below is a capture of the interactive, Beyonce vs Madonna vs Alanis.

Feb 2013
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Jan 2013


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