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.


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.

Literary Constellations: visualising the opening sentences of famous books

Literary constellations.png

From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Time Machine, data art meets literature through Nick Rougeaux’s Literary Constellations project.

When Kurt Vonnegut proposed for his Ph.D thesis statement that “stories have a shapes which can be drawn on graph paper”, it was rejected as by his university. According to Vonnegut, the reason for this rejection was that “it looked like too much fun”.

The idea that it is possible to visualise the way stories are structured may not be entirely new; yet it is always fascinating to see how Vonnegut’s thesis has progressed.

In a new project, the data artist Nick Rougeaux aims to do just this. In Literary Constellations he posits: “words can be transformed into constellation-like diagrams. The first words of a story—and even every chapter—are unique in that they set the stage for what’s to come.”

The project contains a series of astronomy-inspired diagrams of the opening sentences of beloved books and short stories in the public domain, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Time Machine.

Rougeaux explains:

Constellations were created from words of first sentences of each chapter in classic short stories to draw a path based on word length and part of speech. The directions of lines were based on part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and length is based on the length of the word. Star sizes are also based on word length. Constellations were hand-arranged in a loose clockwise pattern starting at the top with a faint highlight connecting each in the order chapters appeared in the story representing the cloud of the galaxy usually shown in vintage star charts.”

Given that the first sentence of a story is often seen as the most important – Julian Barnes once noted that an opening sentence of a short story or novel “should contain the entire plot in nuce” – it is fascinating for both aspiring and established writers to explore the patterns contained within the first sentence of famous novels; to better visualise the way these critically important first words set in motion the rest of the story.

Take a look at some of Rougeaux’s excellent posters below. All of these are available for purchase starting at US$27.80 for 24×36



Electric literature – five digital projects that make you think about books in an entirely new way



Digitally mapping literature: the project ‘Mapping Emotions in Victorian London’ takes data from readers and primary texts to create a graphical visualisation of emotions in fictional Victorian London. 

Here’s a new one for you – what if we were to argue that literary scholarship and the general study of literature no longer requires you to actually read any books? Instead, the same results could be achieved by using computers to crunch “big data” and stores of literary information to provide new insights into the way we think about books, literature, and stories.

This obviously flies in the face of the standard understanding of literary study that for centuries has insisted upon the close reading of texts. Yet it is not a unique argument.

We’ve previously considered whether, with the rise of Apps and digital programming influencing the way we publish stories, the future of literature may be electric. And there is now an increasing number of groups and individuals who believe a similar approach could be taken towards academic literary theory. Indeed, they term this “computational criticism” – that is, the analysis of literature in a statistical way using computational models and digital programming.

Why now? Simply, because modern digital technology permits it. Since Google developed an electronic scanner capable of digitising books in 2004, the written words of all literature can be turned into data – and computers can scan and process this information to pick out trends and identify new areas of insight. They can create graphs, tables, and visual representations of this data that is – arguably – more engaging and interesting to consider than a 100,000 word treatise on the relationship between Kafka’s shoes and modern anti-establishment sentiment (please note: this may not in fact be an actual PhD thesis title – but there are some great ones out there, see for yourselves).

Of course, the idea of visually representing literature as data is not new. One of the great masters of the written word, Kurt Vonnegut, proposed mapping the plots of stories, as well as character development arcs, onto graphs. In 1952, the satirist’s work Player Piano predicted a dystopia in which giant computers have taken over the work of the human brain – and in his later lectures on the shapes of stories he opined “there’s no reason why the shapes of stories can’t be fed into computers.”

Needless to say, this topic has drawn some controversy among the literary establishment. Harold Bloom, one of the best-known literary critics and Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University, has described the idea of digital literary theory as “absurd […] I am interested in reading; that’s all I’m interested in.”

Others are, however, more receptive to these ideas. Jonathan Franzen, for example, says: “The canon is necessarily restrictive. So what you get is generation after generation of scholarship struggling to say anything new. There are only so many ways you can keep saying Proust is great.”

“It can be dismaying to see Kafka or Conrad or Brontë read not for pleasure but as cultural artefacts,” Franzen continues. “To use new technology to look at literature as a whole, which has never really been done before, rather than focusing on complex and singular works, is a good direction for cultural criticism to move in. Paradoxically, it may even liberate the canonical works to be read more in the spirit in which they were written.”

We’ll let you decide for yourselves what you think of this new world of literary study. Below, you’ll find five of our “picks” of digital projects in the humanities. Let us know what you think in the comments section at the end!


  1. Mapping Emotions in Victorian London draws on annotations made by readers on passages of Victorian novels, to generate an “emotional map” of London. You can navigate the map online, exploring the emotions of the readers, as well as the underlying fictional passages, to discover the ways in which London was constructed, navigated and represented emotionally in its fiction.
  2. BookLamprecognises how similar one book is to others in the same genre. Simply type into BookLamp’s search bar one of your favourite novels and it will return a data-driven list of 20 more titles that you’ll like.
  3. VisualEyes, developed by the University of Virginia, is a web-based tool that uses data to digitally map, graph and chart important historical events, searching through vast online databases to pinpoint where concepts first appeared and how they spread across the world.
  4. ‘A View of the World Through Wikipedia’is a time-lapse video made by Kalev Leetaru, a researcher at the University of Illinois, charting how writers have expressed generally positive or negative sentiments towards the places they have written about. Leetaru has done similar analyses with books, social media and online news in a project entitled Culturomics 2.0
  5. The Circumstance art collective in Bristol is an interactive online model: a combination of a print book and an urban-walking app that overlays an imaginary world onto the physical.





Rise of the machines: will computers replace human beings in the publishing industry?



We’ve previously written about the way data on reader’s habits stands to revolutionise processes in the publishing industry. But while so-called “big brother analytics” might change the way publishing houses choose which books they invest in, a general assumption was that the ultimate decision would be made by a human being. This might sound overly obvious; but a recent development could potentially change all that.

In fact, we may be moving toward a world in which computers – rather than human beings – have the final say as to which books are published, and which books companies invest the heaviest amount of marketing funds in.

This all hinges on the success of a new project by data-driven publisher, Inkitt, in collaboration with Tor Books. And the two companies are now set to release the first novel selected by a computer algorithm for publishing.

Bright Star, a young adult novel by Erin Swan, was discovered using predictive data that analysed reading patterns on the Inkitt platform.

“This book deal sends a clear signal to the publishing industry that predictive data analysis is the way of the future,” says Inkitt’s Founder and CEO, Ali Albazaz. “Inkitt is at the forefront of the movement to use predictive data in publishing and this deal shows that our business model works. We are so excited to be able to help Erin kick off her career as a novelist – and we already can’t wait to get our hands on the next book in the Sky Rider series.”

Self-described as “the Hipster’s Library”, Inkitt functions as a platform that allows users to read books that haven’t been published yet – or to “fall in love with novels before they go mainstream.”

While some may point out that there isn’t very much hipster-esque about a company that has to tell people how hipster it is, what is interesting is how these developments may change traditional publishing models. Indeed, could this spell the end for the standard process of a qualified literary editor reading through manuscripts and deciding to invest in those they believe are the best fit for both their company, and for the wider literary industry?

Well, perhaps there is reason to believe so. Some of the most commercially successful novels – think Harry Potter or Twilight – were ignored by a succession of mainstream publishing houses before being picked up by organisations that ultimately reaped huge financial rewards for doing so. Using an algorithm to test what works best with readers could – in theory – help reduce the chances of a publishing house missing out on the opportunity to publish these sorts of best sellers.

But there are of course many caveats here. Not least of which is the fact that we are yet to see how successful Bright Star will be. But furthermore, we may also wish to question whether we truly want a publishing industry built upon the decisions of machines.

It’s true that other algorithms have been designed to make it appear as though computers can write poetry (and some of these AI poems have even been published). Yet there is something innately human about literature and writing. And with books occupying such an important part of our culture, it does seem a risk to remove the human being from the equation.

A further risk here, of course, is that an algorithm designed to identify books that have the greatest financial value in them may not actually be the best books. Fifty Shades of Grey may be taken as an example here – for it stands as an example of a trilogy of books that have sold tens of millions of copies, despite the writing being of questionable quality. These are the books, after all, described variously as “stilted and cliché-ridden” (New York Review of Books), “reading as though women never got the vote” (the London Review of Books) and even as “extremely dangerous […] [because] the themes of the novel – love alone can make someone change, that abuse from a spouse is acceptable as long as he’s great in bed, that pregnancies should always be carried to term even if the parents are not ready to be parents, and the ridiculously antiquated, Victorian idea that the pure love of a virgin can save a wayward man from himself – are irrational, unbelievable and dangerous”.

What are the risks that, should the publishing industry come to rely on computers to make decisions – rather than experienced editors and industry professionals – we come to develop a cultural void in which every book is published not for its merit, but because of its ability to sell copies? What are the risks that we create a cultural imbalance within literature, where our literary canon is filled of, essentially, thousands upon thousands of books like Fifty Shades of Grey?

This is not to disparage readers of the E.L. James novels – but to argue that our culture relies on variety, rather than similarity. The great thing about books is surely that they can cater to all tastes – and anybody can find familiarity and connection with some book, somewhere. And it seems that an industry run by machines motivated purely by the pursuit of commercial success can only serve to narrow the selection of books available to us.

There are already signs that this is taking place already. As pointed out in this Litro Magazine article points out, “there is an increasing focus on mimicking commercial success, rather than striving to create something that is new.” And the influence of modern neoliberal capitalism has seen the publishing industry gradually follow the film and music industries in only investing in pieces of art that seem geared towards bringing in money, rather than new ideas. As such, the industry is increasingly dominated by novels that are copies of novels, which are themselves copies of other commercially successful novels.

In fifty years, will Inkitt and its publishing algorithms be regarded simply as a minor curiosity? Or part of the start of an AI revolution within human culture? If it’s the latter, we may have just witnessed what will come to ultimately eliminate and replace human beings from publishing. Ultimately, it’s up to you, dear readers, how you feel about that.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Trends in publishing: books, data, and Big Brother analytics


Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

Giving up five chapters into a book? You’re not alone. Newly published data by Jellybooks shows that 90% of people reading e-books gave up after only five chapters.

Jellybooks, a reader analytics company based in London, mined troves of data collected from e-books to discover more about the reading habits of “e-readers”.

The company is hoping to sell its analytics work to publishers, helping them produce books their readers read from cover to cover (and not abandon 50 pages in).

While readers of traditional print books can read how they want, when they want, as much as they want and where they want without being tracked by a profiteering corporation, readers of e-books are not so fortunate, as Jellybooks can track your reading behaviour in the same way Netflix knows what you binge-watch and Spotify knows what you listen to (and what you don’t).

But it’s not all bad news for fans of e-books. Jellybooks offers readers a group of free e-books, often before publication. Rather than asking readers to review these books, it tells them to click on a link embedded in the e-book that will upload all the information the device has recorded.

It is this information that shows analysts what books people are reading, when they are reading, and how long they spend reading. It tells them how far readers make it through a book and how quickly they read, among other details.

The process resembles how e-book retailers, like Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, are able to track reader trends by looking at data stored in e-reading devices and apps. Therein lies the less good news for fans of e-books; as Amazon et al are getting all their valuable data and information automatically, with no need to offer readers a free e-book in exchange for their data.

The service offered by Jellybooks could prove invaluable to major publishing houses whose focus lies in traditional print publishing. Yet initial published research may prove hard reading for publishers.

The majority of readers, it turns out, finish fewer than half the books they are given to read. Women are the most persevering of readers; typically lasting between 50 – 100 pages before they give up on a text, while men are much quicker to judge; quitting after just 30 or so pages.

What does this mean for the book industry?

As this New York Times article noted, publishers can use the findings of Jellybook’s data to shape their marketing plans; withdrawing funding from books that readers don’t like, and putting it into books that readers love.

Yet for writers, there may be concern that publisher’s editorial decisions will increasingly be informed by metrics and data, which may somewhat miss the point of what literature is actually for. What is more, the readers who participate in data studies like those conducted by Jellybooks may be unrepresentative of the real, “average reader”. And writers may also fear the relatively small sample sizes of Jellybook’s studies – of groups between 200 and 600 readers – may distort the picture and misrepresent the reactions of a more general, larger audience.

Readers may not feel comfortable with the Big Brother image of some unknown figure essentially reading over their shoulders. While those that sign up for Jellybooks actively consent to having their data tracked in exchange for free e-books, the worry surely comes from the knowledge that e-book retailers like tax-dodging Amazon are doing this – and have been doing this – relatively under the radar, and without getting any direct consent from the readers they are monitoring.

The NYT article points out that “regular e-book readers might not realise that digital retailers are recording and storing their data.” Yet is this necessarily surprising? In our increasingly heavy digital world, analytics and data are transforming the way companies operate. We might not like the thought, as human beings, of being reduced to a set of numbers and percentages, yet we don’t seem inclined to do very much about it.

Of course, while fans of TV series and music may have to accept that their every action is being watched as they stream shows and songs, book fans don’t have to worry: as there is a very real and simple alternative to the e-book.

The humble print book has been with us for generations. And it still does a pretty good job. As the author Jonathan Franzen said: “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model.”

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring.”

“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”


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