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colors: round

Scientific graphical abstracts — design guidelines

data visualization + art

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Enjoy colors?
Take a look at my color projects and resources.

Color proportions in country flags

Color proportions in country flags / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
(right) 256 country flags as concentric circles showing the proportions of each color in the flag. (left) Unique flags sorted by similarity.

Country flags are pretty colorful and some are even pretty.

Instead of drawing the flag in a traditional way (yawn...), I wanted to draw it purely based on the color proportions in the flag (yay!). There are lots of ways to do this, such as stacked bars, but I decided to go with concentric circles. A few examples are shown below.

Color proportions in country flags / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Country flags drawn as concentric rings. The width of each ring is proportional to square root of the area of that color in the flag. Only colors that occupy 1% or more of the flag are shown. (zoom)

Once flags are drawn this way, they can be grouped by similarity in the color proportions.

Check out the posters or read about the method below.

Or, download my country flag color catalog to run your own analysis.

sampling flag colors

To determine the proportions of colors in each flag, I started with the collection of all country flags in SVG from Wikipedia. The flags are conveniently named using the countries' ISO 3166-2 code. At the time of this project (21 Mar 2017), this repository contained 312 flags, of which I used 256.

I originally wanted to use the flag-icon-css collection, but ran into problems with it. It had flags in only either 1 × 1 or 4 × 3 aspect ratio, which distorted and clipped many flags. Many flags were also inaccurately drawn and had inconsistent use of colors. For example, in Turkey's flag the red inside the white crescent was slightly different than elsewhere in the flag.

 / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski buy artwork
Flags of 256 countries and territories drawn as concentric circles representing the proportions of colors in the flag. The flags are labeled with the country's ISO 3166-2 code. ( BUY ARTWORK )

I converted the SVG files to high resolution PNG (2,560 pixels in width) and sampled the colors in each flag, keeping only those colors that occupied at least 0.01% of the flag. I apply this cutoff to avoid blends between colors due to anti-aliasing applied in the conversion. When drawing the flags as circles, I only use colors that occupy at least 1% of the flag—this impacts flags that have detailed emblems, such as Belize. I apply some rounding off of the proportions and colors with the same proportion are ordered so that lighter colors (by Lab luminance) are in the center of the circle.

perceptual radius scaling

There are various ways to represent the proportions of the flag colors as concentric rings—in other words, to use symbols of different size to encode area.

The accurate way is to have the area of the ring be proportional to the area of the color on the map. The inaccurate way is to encode the area by the the width of the ring. These two cases are the `k=0.5` and `k=1` columns in the figure below, where `k` is the power in `r = a^k` by which the radius of the ring, `r`, is scaled relative to the area, `a`. A perceptual mapping using `k=0.57` has been suggested by some.

Color proportions in country flags / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The concentric rings can be drawn to be either accurate in area (left, `k=0.5`) or to have their width encode the area (right, `k=1`). The hybrid approach is a mix of these two extremes. (zoom)

My goal here is not to encode the proportions so that they can be read off quantitatively. To find a value of `k`, I drew some flags and looked at their concentric ring representation. For example, with `k=0.57` the Nigerian flag's white center is too large for my eye while for `k=1` it is definitely too small. I liked the proportions for `k=1/\sqrt{2}` but wasn't happy with the fact that flags like France's, which have colors in equal areas, didn't have equal width rings.

In the end I decided on a hybrid approach in which the out radius of color `i` whose area is `a_i` is `r_i = a_i^k + \sum_{j=0}^{i-1} a_j^k` where the colors are sorted so that `a_{i-1} \le a_i`. If I use `k=0.25`, I manage to have flags like France have equal width rings but flags like Nigeria in which the proportions are not equal are closer to the encoding with `k=1/\sqrt{2}`. In this hybrid approach smaller areas, such as the white in the map of Turkey, are exaggerated. Notice that here `k` plays a slightly different role—it's used as the power for each color individually, `\sum a^k`, rather than their sum, `\left({\sum a}\right)^k`.

For the purists this choice of encoding might appear as the crime of the worst sort, representing neither correct (`k=0.5`) nor the conventionally incorrect encoding associated with `k=1`. Think of it this way—I know what rule I'm breaking.

calculating flag similarity

The similarity between two flags is calculated by forming an intersection between the radii positions of the concentric rings of the flags.

Color proportions in country flags / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Example of how flag similarity is calculated using the flags of Ukraine and Sweden. (zoom)

For each intersection, the similarity of colors is determined using `\Delta E`, which is the Euclidian distance of the colors in LCH space. I placed less emphasis on luminance and chroma in the similarity calculation by fist transforming the coordinates to `(\sqrt L,\sqrt C, H)`) before calculating color differences. The similarity score is $$ S = \sum \frac{\Delta r}{\sqrt{\Delta E}} $$

Color pairs with `\Delta E < \Delta E_{min} = 5` are considered the same and have an effective `\Delta E = 1`.

Color proportions in country flags / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The order of flags using different approaches to calculating the similarity score. (zoom)

I explored different cutoffs and combinations of transforming the color coordinates. This process was informed based on how the order of the flags looked to me.

Color proportions in country flags / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Reasonable ordering for some similar flags achieved by optimizing how similarity between flags is calculated. (zoom)

I decided to start the order with Tonga, since it had the highest average similarity score to all other flags in some of my trials. The flag that is most different from other flags, as measured by the average similarity score, is Israel.

Color proportions in country flags / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
(left) Order of flags when starting with Tonga. (right) Order of flags when starting with Israel, which is has the lowest average similarity score of all flags. (zoom)

 / Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski buy artwork
Flags of 256 countries and territories drawn as concentric circles representing the proportions of colors in the flag. Flags are sorted by similarity in color proportion and labeled with the country's ISO 3166-2 code. ( BUY ARTWORK )

download files

country flag colors

I couldn't find a list of colors in the flags of countries, so I provide my analysis here. Every country's SVG flag was converted into a 2,560 × 1,920 PNG file (4,915,200 pixels). Colors that occupied at least 0.01% of the pixels are listed in their HEX format, followed by the number of pixels they occupy. The fraction of the flag covered by sampled colors is also shown.


#code img_pixels sampled_pixels fraction_sampled_pixels hex:pixels,hex:pixels,...
cm 4366506 4364514 0.999544 FCD116:1513103,007A5E:1456071,CE1126:1395340
cn 4369920 4364756 0.998818 DE2910:4260992,FFDE00:103764
co 4364800 4364800 1.000000 FCD116:2183680,003893:1090560,CE1126:1090560

country similarity score


#code1 code2 similarity_score
ad ae 0.0108360578506763
ad af 0.0288161214840692
ad ag 0.0510922121861494
ad ai 0.42746294322472
zw ye 0.473278765746989
zw yt 0.238101673130705
zw za 0.810589244643825
zw zm 0.573265751850587


news + thoughts

The COVID charts — hospitalization rates

Tue 25-01-2022

As part of the COVID Charts series, I fix a muddled and storyless graphic tweeted by Adrian Dix, Canada's Health Minister.

I show you how to fix color schemes to make them colorblind-accessible and effective in revealing patters, how to reduce redundancy in labels (a key but overlooked part of many visualizations) and how to extract a story out of a table to frame the narrative.

Browse all the COVID charts.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Clear titles introduce the graphic, which starts with informative and non-obvious observations of the relationship between age, number of comorbidities, vaccination status and hospitalization rates. Supporting the story is a tidy table that gives you detailed statistics for each demographic. (more)

Music for the Moon: Flunk's 'Down Here / Moon Above'

Sat 29-05-2021

The Sanctuary Project is a Lunar vault of science and art. It includes two fully sequenced human genomes, sequenced and assembled by us at Canada's Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre.

The first disc includes a song composed by Flunk for the (eventual) trip to the Moon.

But how do you send sound to space? I describe the inspiration, process and art behind the work.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The song 'Down Here / Moon Above' from Flunk's new album History of Everything Ever is our song for space. It appears on the Sanctuary genome discs, which aim to send two fully sequenced human genomes to the Moon. (more)

Browse the genome discs.

Happy 2021 `\pi` Day—
A forest of digits

Sun 14-03-2021

Celebrate `\pi` Day (March 14th) and finally see the digits through the forest.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The 26th tree in the digit forest of `\pi`. Why is there a flower on the ground?. (details)

This year is full of botanical whimsy. A Lindenmayer system forest – deterministic but always changing. Feel free to stop and pick the flowers from the ground.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
The first 46 digits of `\pi` in 8 trees. There are so many more. (details)

And things can get crazy in the forest.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
A forest of the digits of '\pi`, by ecosystem. (details)

Check out art from previous years: 2013 `\pi` Day and 2014 `\pi` Day, 2015 `\pi` Day, 2016 `\pi` Day, 2017 `\pi` Day, 2018 `\pi` Day and 2019 `\pi` Day.

Testing for rare conditions

Sun 30-05-2021

All that glitters is not gold. —W. Shakespeare

The sensitivity and specificity of a test do not necessarily correspond to its error rate. This becomes critically important when testing for a rare condition — a test with 99% sensitivity and specificity has an even chance of being wrong when the condition prevalence is 1%.

We discuss the positive predictive value (PPV) and how practices such as screen can increase it.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Testing for rare conditions. (read)

Altman, N. & Krzywinski, M. (2021) Points of significance: Testing for rare conditions. Nature Methods 18:224–225.

Standardization fallacy

Tue 09-02-2021

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty! —D. Adams

A popular notion about experiments is that it's good to keep variability in subjects low to limit the influence of confounding factors. This is called standardization.

Unfortunately, although standardization increases power, it can induce unrealistically low variability and lead to results that do not generalize to the population of interest. And, in fact, may be irreproducible.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Nature Methods Points of Significance column: Standardization fallacy. (read)

Not paying attention to these details and thinking (or hoping) that standardization is always good is the "standardization fallacy". In this column, we look at how standardization can be balanced with heterogenization to avoid this thorny issue.

Voelkl, B., Würbel, H., Krzywinski, M. & Altman, N. (2021) Points of significance: Standardization fallacy. Nature Methods 18:5–6.

Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines

Fri 13-11-2020

Clear, concise, legible and compelling.

Making a scientific graphical abstract? Refer to my practical design guidelines and redesign examples to improve organization, design and clarity of your graphical abstracts.

Martin Krzywinski @MKrzywinski
Graphical Abstract Design Guidelines — Clear, concise, legible and compelling.