Creatives in Profile – Interview with Nicholas Rougeux

Nicholas Rougeux

Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can help us look at the world differently; making the ordinary extraordinary and encouraging us to see beauty and elegance in the unexpected.

In an era of big and open data, perhaps one of the most interesting artistic movement to emerge in recent years is that of data visualisation, which can describe, depict, and represent facts and truths about ourselves and our surroundings. The artistic representation and visualisation of data in this way thereby allows us to picture not only what we can readily see, but also the things that aren’t visible. In this way, it can be seen as a natural extension of artistic ‘Realism’ – or the representation of reality as it is; an act of mimesis.

Nicholas Rougeux is a creative at the forefront of this artistic medium. A Chicago-based self-taught web developer and artist, Nicholas has mapped the punctuation in books – stripping out the words of literary classics in the process – as well as charting mesmerising maps of the world’s highway interchanges; creating constellations from the opening lines of famous novels; and exploring the hidden art of subway tracks.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.


Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle


I’m a web designer in Chicago and lead a fairly ordinary lifestyle. I was born in Ohio and transferred to Chicago when I was younger and this has been my home ever since. I’ve always been interested in the web from its early days and have had a website for my projects as long as I can remember. The early years of the web weren’t too pretty and neither were my sites but maintaining an online presence for nearly 20 years has taught me many things about art, technology, and everything in between.


Is digital art your first love, or do you have another passion?


I’ve always been fascinated with digital art and have been in front of a screen for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of using DOS programs on those giant 5.25” floppies to color pictures or draw random designs. I also got hooked on creating pixel art by immersing myself in Mario Paint for the SNES. Eventually I “graduated” to MS Paint when Windows came around and progressed from there. Any free time I’ve had has been spent in front of a screen playing in some kind of graphics program.


Who inspires you?


Any artist or really anyone who’s passionate about their work. Seeing someone create something they love and really getting into it is always inspirational—whether it’s someone creating digital art or making something physical like a car, leather bag, or a sculpture. Everyone immersed in their creative process is who inspires me.


Who were your early teachers?


I’m mostly self-taught. I don’t say this to sound pompous. When I was growing up, there weren’t many resources beyond fumbling around with design tools or scouring the web for interesting art. Being an only child, I had a lot of time to myself when I was growing up so I spent that time exploring the tools I could get my hand on.


What are some of the key challenges you face as a web developer and designer? Do you see the two as being distinct from one another or innately entwined?


I think of myself more as a web designer than a developer—though I like to tell people I know just enough about code to be dangerous and I’m great a breaking things. Designing and developing can easily go hand-in-hand. Knowing something about both can be very beneficial. I do mostly design and front-end development (HTML/CSS) so knowing how a page will be structured is very helpful when designing a layout. Similarly, having knowledge about design helps me plan how markup and styles can be structured to accommodate for design changes that may get made in the future.


Could you describe the relationship you see between art and data?


I’ve always seen data as more tools in a toolbox—just a very versatile set of tools. Data can easily be seen as something boring and simply informative but as with most things, there’s hidden beauty if you know where to look. The challenge is finding where that is and knowing what to do with it when you find it. Everything has data just as everything has color, shape, etc. They’re other attributes to use.


Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as an artist?


To be honest, I don’t think about it much but I do strive to be truthful in what I create. Using data makes that possible and even easy. By creating something based on data, I’m forced to stay within the confines of what those data have to offer.


Do you have a specific audience in mind when you begin working on new projects?


I don’t like to limit myself to any one audience other than those that find curious things interesting. I’ve discovered quite a few interesting audiences with each project I create.

For example, one of my earlier projects was a simple poster showing outlines of all the US National Parks. This was little more than a weekend project and I didn’t give it much thought after posting. I was surprised when I learned that there was a group of people with the goal of vsiting all the national parks and several of them found this type of poster intriguing. I knew that national parks were interesting but had no idea that there was a community so passionate about them. Similarly, when I created my Interchange Choreography project, I learned that quite a few people love reviewing, exploring, and even creating fantasy interchanges in programs in Sim City-like games. I had no idea such a group existed.

I’ve learned that if I found something even remotely interesting, there’s a good chance that there are others out there that find it even more interesting so it’s worth exploring. The possibilities are limitless.


Can you tell us a little bit about how you began your career?


As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been putting my work online for almost 20 years so the web has always been second nature to me. In high school and college, I was always in creative classes like art, architecture, computers, etc. When it came time to start a degree, I chose web development and design and was fortunate enough to get a job while still in college at a small web firm in Chicago. I’ve been with them ever since.


What advice can you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway?


Stick with what you love doing. It sounds cliché but it’s true. There isn’t one guaranteed way to get what you want but if you keep doing what you enjoy, things tend to happen naturally and that seems like the best course of action—at least it has for me.


Your project, ‘Literary Constellations’ provides a fascinating and unique visualised insight into both literature, and writing in general. What do you think using and presenting data in this way can tell us about the craft of writing?


Honestly, I don’t think it can tell us much about the craft of writing other than there’s no pattern or consistency to how to write a great story. Trying to read too much into it likely won’t result in any deep revelations—though if there are any, I’d be very pleasantly surprised! This project was something of an accident that I stumbled on when exploring different types of data. I’m just pleased that it came together so nicely and that people enjoy the images.


Keeping with the literary theme for a moment, if you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?


This is a tough one to answer because I haven’t read the books that most people would probably include in their list. While I enjoy reading, it hasn’t been something I live to do as much as others. Rather than recommending any one set of books, I’d recommend that people read anything that piques their interest—whether it be the classics, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. Quite often, the “best” books are those that no one recommends and you happen to find one day while perusing a bookstore.


How do you view the relationship between digital art and – for want of a better term – ‘traditional’ art?


Art’s art. Digital art is just the latest iteration of the ever-evolving term. Form of art—digital, traditional, and everything in between—informs the rest. I don’t put much weight on the different forms of art because it’s all fascinating.


What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the digital art industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?


If I could predict the future, I’d be very rich. Since can’t, I’m not! I don’t consider myself anywhere near knowledgeable enough to try to predict could be a trend or future-defining. However, I’m fairly certain that the constant of “content is king” will continue to be true. How something looks can often be irrelevant if the underlying content isn’t interesting, useful, or informative. This is why the first thing I do for any project is to look for interesting information. Once that’s found, it’s just a matter of finding an interesting way to represent it—though I know that’s no small feat!


Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?


First I have to think of them! I’m ways looking for interesting data from anywhere about anything. I have a few things in the back of my mind that am mulling over but they haven’t blossomed into anything concrete yet. Until the next big thing comes along, I continue to update existing projects like adding new songs to my Off the Staff project in partnership with the OpenScore project from MuseScore, which visualizes the notes in famous classical scores like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s 5th Symphony; adding new covers to my color analysis of The New Yorker covers; or adding posters as people request them for others.


Could you write us a story in 6 words?


I’m a terrible writer. How’s this?


Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for aspiring artists?


  • Explore unfamiliar topics. You’d be surprised what you learn.
  • Experiment with any tool you can get your hands on. You never know when it may come in handy for its intended use or something else entirely.
  • Share early ideas. It’s hard but getting feedback early is very revealing.
  • Be grateful. The world is a big place so be happy when someone takes the time—even if it’s a few seconds—to check out your work.
  • Stay grounded. The world’s not going to take notice of everything you do so keep plugging along and build your body of work.
  • Keep the old stuff and the “bad” stuff. The first version’s usually the worst so iterate often but keep the old stuff. You can draw inpriration even from your own old discarded ideas that you once thought were ugly.
  • Be patient. Sometimes ideas come out of no where like a bolt of lighting and sometimes they take forever. Give them time to germinate and give yourself time to refine them.


To see more of Nicholas Rougeux’s work, visit his website.


“Why exist?” An interview with Bruce Lee, ‘the most depressed fish in the world’


The Siamese Fighting Fish known as Bruce Lee had no idea he would find himself at the centre of a global conversation about fish depression. When he woke up for his morning fish flakes on Monday morning, he was shocked, perplexed and, yes, a little anxious and depressed to see his shining blue face and gills effervescent on the smartphone screen of the woman staying in his hotel room – also known to Bruce and his imaginary aquatic companion Ralph the Japanese Wrestling Toad as ‘the Great Beyond’.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Bruce confides during an exclusive interview with Nothing in the Rulebook. “When that New York Times reporter started taking photographs of me, I just assumed it was for their Instagram account. And the questions they were asking – about whether I had a loving relationship with my parents or if I believed in God – well they’re just pretty standard, really. A lot of guests at Holiday Inn hotels find themselves having existential questions with fish; it’s really not uncommon.”

A staunch supporter of fish rights, Bruce has been on at least three circular swims around his bowl in the last half hour alone – all in protest at the way fish so regularly have their photographs taken without their permission, gaining no financial reward when these images are then shared worldwide.

“That David Attenborough and his Blue Planet series – he’s just the worst. I regularly commune with a Tiger shark I met on the fish internet called Terry, who hasn’t been able to get a job since David and his BBC crew filmed him eating a baby seal. They call him “baby killer” and “seal muncher” in interviews. He’s been losing weight; his wife left him, taking their pups with her. And what did he get? Not a dime from the production company. When he goes too close to the shallows now, people start screaming at him, they even bring in helicopters, chasing him away with harpoons and speed boats. They recognise him from the TV show, you see. It’s really not right what these pornographers – and they are pornographers, there’s no other term for it – do to us. We have rights, too.”

But what does Bruce think about the core subject matter of the article about his supposed depression? On this, the Betta takes a complex view.

“All I see is grey”

“You see, the thing is, I’m not what you would call the sort of fish who gets depression,” he explains. “Sure, there are days when I wake up and all I see is grey, and it feels as though I’m moving through liquid, with a strange weight all around me. But then, there will be others where everything is new and different and exciting. You look down to the bottom of your tank and you see there’s a new pebble that’s been overturned and it has the most beautiful pattern like nothing you’ve ever seen before. So I guess that’s just the nature of life in a way – it has ups and downs.”

“But of course, fish depression really is the silent killer. And a big problem in the shoaling communities is that you lose touch with your friends as you get older. They stop coming to visit your tank; you stop making the effort to go to the fake alligator or meet them in the plastic plants, because hey, you’re not fry anymore and you’re spending each of your days busting your gut down by the filtration system, so you just want to go back to your corner and drift along by the floor of your tank and maybe watch Netflix if one of the guests is into something decent like Stranger Things or Hannibal. You just don’t have the energy to keep up with all these young guppies showboating with the cash they’ve been flush with since Thatcher privatised all the old state industries and deregulated the financial fish market.”

“Too many fish just sort of disappear”

“I’ve known too many fish who just sort of disappear this way. One day they’re there – the next; bam! Floating upside down in a toilet. Of course no fish asks for this. But nobody ever knows where to go. They never talk about it. And that’s the most important thing. You need fins to cry on; you need folks to turn to; you need to speak up. So yes, in that respect I suppose it is a good thing that this article came out when it did – it’s just a shame that journalist didn’t ask my permission to use my photo, and I don’t see why some of those sweet internet royalties couldn’t find their way to me somehow.”

Speaking to Bruce, you can’t help but get the impression that he’s trying to deflect around something that is otherwise gnawing at him. He’s all pomp and bluster and good natured conversation – offering you as many fish flakes as you like and never flinching when you accidently tap the glass of his tank. But this is a fish with a very real wall around him, blocking him off from the rest of the world. As though in a move to combat this impression, he pre-emptively moves to forgo further questioning about his personal feelings by offering us un-inhibited access to the personal diary he has kept for “somewhere between one hour and four years, depending on time and my life expectancy, etc – what ever that is,” he says.

Reading the diary is a far more revealing experience than, perhaps, either Bruce or this interviewer expected.

Diary of a lonely fish

Diary entries range from the elegiac; “I spent three moons deep at rest beneath the swirling stars of the hotel guest’s laptop screensaver. The quickening slivers of colour warping around each other seemed for a moment to mirror the beating of my heart, and with each movement of water through my gills it felt as though, for the first time, I could feel the intrinsic separation of oxygen from hydrogen molecules as the liquid passed back into my tank, and the sweet elixir of life filled my lungs. And in the ecstasy of the moment all I could think of was how infinite the world was, how perfectly beautiful it is to be mortal and small and unimportant in something so vast.”

To the worryingly short; “why exist?”

But perhaps the most interesting diary entries are those focused around a particular week in the summer of 2016. It is during this time that Bruce’s diary entries are most vivid, at their longest, and filled with an intense optimism about the possibilities of the future.

Donald Trump and a new love interest

Crucially, it is also at this time we are introduced to a new hotel guest – described by Bruce as “An overweight orangutan with a bad toupee and tiny hands”. This guest – who hotel records confirm to be no other than US President Donald Trump – had a habit, the diaries indicate, of setting up mirrors all around the room. While Trump apparently used these mirrors generally to investigate suspicious moles on his back, as well as to stare at his genitalia shouting “It IS bigger than Barack’s, it is!” the truly interesting thing is that in the mirror closest to Bruce’s tank, Bruce first spots “the most incredible vision – a fish more beautiful than words can describe”.

Pressing Bruce to expand on who this fish was, he averts the question, talking about how the animated film Shark Tale is the most racist-against-fish film to have been produced this side of the millennium. Yet other diary entries are more illuminating.

On the second day of Trump’s residency in the room, Bruce notes: “I am yet to build up the courage to talk to her – but I know I must. Never have I felt such a passion stir in me.”

And then, on the fourth: “Feelings! My heart leaps and my world is turned around. For we have the most incredible of all things – an instant, life affirming connection. And this all the more fantastic for there being no words spoken between us. But who needs words when the connection is so strong? After hours of pondering, of second-guessing my best move, I approached this beauty, and as I did so, she turned to face me, too – entirely directly, our eyes meeting, and in that moment, the world stood still. We stayed there, transfixed upon each other’s gaze. Galaxies exploding in our heads, the infinite possibilities of love in our hearts. Every move I made she made too – at identical times, as though we were not two creatures but one; two parts of the same whole. It is true what they say, that souls do have their equal partner. After so long waiting, I have finally found my own.”

Finally, though, disaster. On the afternoon of Trump’s last day in the room, Bruce’s love interest disappears. That evening, Bruce writes: “Oh woe is me my love, for banishment hath found my heart and ripped it from my chest. I cannot think but think of you – I cannot swim but drift to the bottomless depths of despair. How can I carry on without you beside me? What is life without you? What is…”

There are no further diary entries for a period of seven months, until a fresh one appears, signalling a key sea change in his tone of writing: “Fish flakes. The synthetic substance made of my peers. Each mouthful is cannibalism. My life is a lie.”

With a deadline looming, one final attempt is made to persuade Bruce to speak about this period in his life. And to find out what transpired in this Betta’s mind during those ominous seven months of silence. But he is unmoved by our requests and signals with a dorsal fin for us to leave the room. Our exclusive interview with the fish who shot to fame is over.


Two days after this interview was published, Bruce was found on the floor of his hotel room, dead. The apparent cause of death? Suicide by drying out on the carpet.

One day later, a cheque arrived for Bruce from the New York Times.

The NYT have not been available for comment.

Between stations: exploring the art of subway tracks

Subway art.png

Looking somewhere between an electric circuit diagram and a Mondrian painting, subway – or underground – maps are exemplars of ways to present difficult information in an accessible, visually engaging and, crucially, easy to understand, way.

Londoners may well be familiar with the story of Harry Beck’s famous ‘diagram’ of the city’s underground system in 1931, which presented dozens of lines that both criss crossed a few miles of central London, but also spanned dozens of miles outside the city, stretching out into the suburbs.

Beck’s approach – plotting lines on a grid running vertically, horizontally or at 45 degree angles – meant that it was not possible to tell the distance or precise geographic location of stations at a glance. However, Beck reasoned this was unimportant: what passengers needed to know was how to get from one station to another as efficiently as possible and where to change between lines.

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Beck’s 1931 ‘diagram’ of the London Underground system

Beck’s design revolutionised the design of underground maps across the world. A traveller from London will be able to read the subway or metro systems in New York or Hong Kong just as easily as if they were travelling between Elephant and Castle and Harrow and Wealdstone back in their home city.

Unsurprisingly then, the design of tube maps is a source of inspiration for artists and designers, as they offer clear examples of how to present complicated data effectively, and creatively.

A fascinating new project from Nicholas Rougeux, the creator of the inspired ‘literary constellations’ suite of visualisations of the opening lines of famous books, has now taken the humble tube map a step further.

In ‘Between Stations’, Rougeux breaks down famous subway systems into the segments between each station and rearranges them to fill a common simple shape: a circle. Each diagram shows every segment in a subway system while maintaining geographic orientation (no segments were rotated). Some segments serve multiple lines, like in in Chicago where the segment between the Washington/Wells and Quincy stops serves the Purple, Pink, Orange, and Brown lines. In these situations, a segment was included or each using that line’s colour.

London subway map.png

Rougeux breaks down famous subway systems and rearranges them into the simple circle

Explaining his methodology and process behind each of the new maps and animations, Rougeux says: “Arranging the segments this way reveals geographic identities unique to each city. For example, Chicago is a grid-based city from north to south and east to west so its diagram has more mostly horizontal and vertical segments while London’s segments appear more curved because the city’s layout is less ridgid. New York City’s layout has grid-based areas but they’re on an angle from true north, so most of the lines are diagonal.”

Explore the art of subway maps for yourselves. Check out Rougeux’s project.