Finding Waldo by Visualizing Patterns
Graphic by Slate. Illustration by Martin Handford published by Candlewick Press.
In Chapter 1: The Science of Infographics of my new book, Cool Infographics, I cover that our ability to see patterns is a huge factor in why data visualizations and infographics are so effective. Humans can see patterns and recognize differences where computers can’t. You can read about this topic and more in the Free Sample Chapter available for download.
Illustrator Martin Handford published the first in his beloved series of Where’s Waldo books over 25 years ago.* The books challenge readers to find the titular cartoon man, clad in his trusty red-striped shirt and red-striped hat, as he hides in a landscape of red-striped red herrings. When attempting to find Waldo you can scan the page completely from top to bottom, or you can focus your search around certain landmarks where Waldo seems likely to be hiding (in a castle’s moat, riding a blimp). Neither approach is particularly efficient. Which got me to wondering: What if there’s a better way?
I sought to answer these questions the way any mathematician who has no qualms about appearing ridiculous in public would: I sat in a Barnes & Noble for three hours flipping through all seven Where’s Waldo books with a tape measure.
The map born of my experiment is below.
It may not be immediately clear from looking at this map, but my hunch that there’s a better way to hunt was right. There isn’t one corner of the page where Waldo is always hiding; readers would have already noticed if his patterns were so obvious. What we do see, as highlighted in the map below, is that 53 percent of the time Waldo is hiding within one of two 1.5-inch tall bands, one starting three inches from the bottom of the page and another one starting seven inches from the bottom, stretching across the spread.