Around the Studio: Creating the Ebola Infographic

by Emily Twaddell

As the news has spread in all directions we have discovered that the 2014 Ebola outbreak represents not only a healthcare crisis with global impact, but also an information crisis. Even highly respected news outlets can have conflicting information on a single event, so that the stories are confusing and hard to trust. Hours spent poring over the NIH and CDC and WHO sites revealed the common threads of truth, but the details were scattered. There was no straightforward way to get a complete picture.

So, we decided to create a single source of graphical information that could become an international resource. Something that could compliment the Wikipedia page. Clean lines, a classic readable font, with unambiguous colors and icons. Headers in black and white, red for critical information, gray text to let pictures do the talking. Easy to scan and locate the topics before reading closely for details.

For designer Xinyu Liu, sifting through and digesting the massive information set was a great challenge, as was creating the graphics based on what she learned. It took time as well to select and refine icons for readability and simplicity. A fully articulated timeline had to be scrapped because it simply didn't show all of the information. Then came distilling the language for brevity and clarity, fact-checking to make sure we had the country names correct, as African politics have shifted since the virus was first identified, and researching to ensure clinical accuracy. 

We worked quickly to get the graphic out into public view. Waiting to get it perfect was not the plan. It is an image for now—it’s not yet searchable nor dynamic. We need lots of eyes on it, the eyes of people who are far more aware of what is currently happening and how it all began: doctors, healthcare workers, policy makers, scientists, and others in the field. We are continually gathering feedback, updating, and reposting. The scientific method at its best: ideate, model, test, repeat.

The first draft of this document was put together in under two weeks. Here is a peek at how that happened.


A single page from Xinyu's sketchbook contains the challenge in a nutshell: overwhelming data in a broad range of topics, from geopolitical divisions to chronology, the nature of the virus, rates of incidence and deaths, and more. Color codes and graphs are beginning to take shape even while information is still coming in.


A detail of the timeline that now clearly tells the story of each outbreak since 1976 with geographical locations, rates of cases and deaths, and a summary of how the infection began and spread in each case. The timeline also indicates points at which new strains of the virus were identified.


Gathering epidemiological data, developing the context for the narrative of the current outbreak.


Working with feedback to improve visual consistency, and, later, understanding the concept of viral load to add new information from an external reviewer.


Here we see the finely tuned visualization of the information in the previous two sketches, used to convey the dramatic differences in viral load among several devastating diseases.

Involution Studios is a tiny company. We are not an NGO nor a non-profit. We are, however, deeply committed to designing great healthcare and changing people’s behavior for better health (hence, the Health Axioms). We want to understand what is happening with Ebola, and we want to make it easier to share that knowledge. So we created Understanding Ebola: A Visual Guide as an open-source project that we are distributing as widely as possible. We invite feedback and we will continue to update and improve it as healthcare professionals send us better information.


Topics: culture of learning, Healthcare, infovis, health, data visualization, information design, Ebola