How much information does a line convey? Depending on the context, it can be as empty as ribbon or as rich as an encyclopedia. In the case of Theo Deutinger’s new book, Ultimate Atlas, lines contain an entire world’s worth of information.
The Ultimate Atlas hardly looks like an atlas. Rendered in stark black and white, the book’s pages look more like barcodes or an abstract drawing of piano keys. In reality, the data visualizations that fill the 100-page book are minimalist representations of everything from the size of countries to the kinds of crops that are found on Earth.
Deutinger, who previously created intricate visualizations of the world’s most violent architecture, applies his same penchant for chromatic minimalism to the atlas. Instead of embracing the inherent complexity of Earth, he boils the planet down to black-and-white lines that cut vertically across the page like a notebook flipped 180 degrees. “I wanted to strip it all down,” he says. “That’s what Earth is without our intellect, without our urge for counting and knowing—it’s just a white page.”
Deutinger refers to his black-and-white design as a form of visual binary code. Every dataset in the book is depicted with the same system: a white rectangle and thin black lines that cut the page into slivers. With labels printed in Helvetica, the exceedingly simple pages are able to express complex sets of information like the amount of coffee produced by any given country or number of planes owned by any given airline.
When Deutinger first started designing the atlas, he had an even more radical idea for how to illustrate it. “I first thought I’d only put black vertical lines on a white piece of paper and you’d have to imagine what kind of information it could be,” he says. It was a provocative idea—probably a bit too provocative—so he added labels in 5.5-point font and a small descriptor to give more context.
Most atlases hinge on depictions of geographical reality; the Ultimate Atlas is guided by its own logic, and reading it for the first time is almost like deciphering a code. Information is plotted from left to right, starting with the largest values. White represents information, black represents non-information. A scale sits at the bottom left hand corner to help give perspective.
Capturing Earth’s vastness is impossible, even when reduced to simple lines, but Deutinger was able to create a narrative by splitting the book into themes. The book zooms out from surface area (land use, water vs land), in towards terrestrial matters (nuclear warheads, number of elephants), down to the human body (composition of the human form) and back out towards space (operational satellites orbiting Earth). The fact that they all look more or less the same only underlines the fact that everything on Earth is intertwined. “It’s the ultimate simplification of reality,” he says.