Telling the Story of Big Numbers

It just doesn’t add up.  We humans have a terrible time understanding large numbers. Once the number starts to exceed what we’re comfortable dealing with, it becomes too abstract and all starts to sound the same. Basically if it is higher than we can count, it’s too big to understand easily. A number of experts have done a great job of explaining why this is, so we won’t go into that here.

Because of our limited comprehension, just hearing the number one billion or ten billion doesn’t do justice to the actual number. What we think of as “just another zero” actually means “ten times the number.” Here at Cre8tive Group, we’re working on a project for which we need to show the vastness of large numbers. The current financial crises, with all of the billions of dollars mentioned here and there, has created a wealth of examples. Here are a few that have inspired us.  (Some of these are slanted politically, but they are still useful in learning visual storytelling techniques.)

Comparing large numbers to each other

In this example, shot with extremely low production values, the creator compares two huge numbers by reducing a couple million dollars to a few pennies:

$1 Billion, in $100 bills looks like this:

Simple and concrete. What does $1 trillion look like if it were $100 dollar bills? Just how big is the vault at Fort Knox? But what will $1 trillion buy you?

Sending everyone in the country on an 11 week vacation doesn’t sound bad to me. Moving beyond a percentage comparison, this example compares a large dollar number to the value of things we are familiar with. This is one of our favorite examples.

Enough examples, how about instruction?

Popular designer Jeffrey Veen gave a great talk at the Web 2.0 conference on “Designing for Big Data.”



Hutchens Brothers