From idea to final dataviz – EU Drug Markets Report 2019

Last week I posted a link to a project that I completed last year, working in collaboration with EMCDDA and Europol – the EU Drug Markets Report 2019. 

I posted it because the particular graphic that I show in the preview was one of those projects that really changed along the way from initial idea and sketch to the final look. It was a challenging project and one that I sometimes use as an example of the process in my workshops. See the report here.

A comment from Andrew Cunningham (EMCDDA staff), one of the contributors to the report made me think that showing the progression of the design would be interesting for viewers, so here goes.

To put this spread into context, each chapter of the Drug Markets Report concentrates on one drug or range of drugs, so we have Cannabis, Heroin, Cocaine, Synthetics (MDMA, Amphetamine, Methamphetamine) and NPS (New Psychoactive Substances) Each chapter has a main spread graphic, along with its chapter colour, summing up the particular drug and looking at its sources, distribution, price, purity etc around the world as well as across Europe.

We tried to keep to the same format for each drug graphic so that the reader would know what was being shown in each position.  There is a central image surrounded by many data graphics – generally world data on the right and EU data on the left page. I have included the other drug spreads here so you can see what I mean.

With NPS we have a range of drugs that cover many of the other drug categories but in man-made chemical form, so the way the data was collected and needed to be presented was very different. Trying to keep up with the new (sometimes very similar) chemical formulas and drugs is a major task. In our initial discussions the huge number of drugs recorded and monitored by the EU early warning system seemed to be very important and we agreed that this was something that should be shown. For instance in the last year of reporting – 2018 – there were approximately 52 drugs monitored and reported out of a total of about 731 (numbers were not 100% accurate as this stage) reported since 2003 – an interesting thing to visualise as we could also show how many of each category were being monitored. Here are some of the trials showing the 731 drugs and the breakdown of what types they were.

I thought if I use each drug as a dot and make it into a hexagon shape, being of significance in the chemistry of the NPS (benzine ring) that would be a great way to show just how many had been monitored in that time and the proportion that had been reported in the last year. Maybe we could have that as out main image and hang the other data off of that.

Luckily the total number of dots fits quite happily into that hex shape (well almost) and so I tried to lay out some of the remaining data along the same lines as the other spreads. 

I was hoping that we could pull out and highlight some examples of the drugs over the years to help put them into context for the more general reader, ie where was ‘spice’ and when was it notified and what are the data for that etc so I added some dummy copy boxes over the 700 dots.

You can see here that the layout is six column double page spread.


As with most projects, discussions between colleagues and myself are an ongoing and vital part of the process. Elements are changed, colours are altered and layouts adjusted…

During some of these discussions it was agreed that the number of seizure cases was really the important piece of information – or it was at least as important as the numbers of the drugs – and so we decided that this should be primary focus of the spread.

I had the data in a small graphic at the top right hand side and so I redesigned the spread using that information as the focus, now hanging the other data, including the dots, from that. The number of drugs was still an important piece of data and so I tried to incorporate that into the new design using 732 dots arranged in different way, firstly in a row…

…then using my preferred hex shape once again. You can see here I tried other chart types including the histogram like chart but we agreed on the area/line chart in simple colours with the hexagon (700+ dots) as a secondary visual although near to the top of the page so that the reader would see the huge numbers before seeing the quantities.

Once we had agreed on the look, it was then time to refine the main chart to add EU and EU+2 data (light and dark blue) plus add the additional information such as highlighting certain drugs and chemical categories as well as other relevant or interesting information. You can see I had started to do this above and below.

The key for the 731 NPS dots was a real problem and that particular element went through many stages to try and get it into a state that was acceptable to everybody and understandable to the reader.

Then it was really down to refinement and adjusting text, layout, positioning, white space and incorporating and editing the new data when we got it until we end up at the final version.

Keeping everybody involved (and sometimes not involved!) updated with the process and what was going on was a big job, but luckily at that stage I could spend time in EMCDDA’s  office which made the process much smoother.

Making sure everybody involved was happy with the information shown, the text and the placement of the visuals is always a big job and these spreads were no exception.

We got there in the end and I and, hopefully, the team at EMCDDA are happy with the results. Working with a big team is always an involved, complex and sometimes frustrating experience – for them as much as me – but knowing the data and subject matter (they are the experts here), knowing the audience and knowing the reasons for producing the visuals is a vital part of the job and hopefully this knowledge will guide you to a good result.

This happens with every chart and graphic I produce, from the most basic to the complex. Some have more steps and processes, including lots of pencil sketches (which have gone missing here) some less, the process is the same. 

These were just some of the graphics produced for the report. There are many more in the report including timelines, drug processes and more icon-like graphics, so head over to the site and download last years and this years report amongst many more.

A big thank you to Rosemary Martin de Sousa (Head of unit), Andrew Cunningham (who’s idea it was to post this) and everybody involved at EMCDDA and Europol – a real team effort. 

2019 Report here

08 December 2020

2 thoughts on “From idea to final dataviz – EU Drug Markets Report 2019

  1. Peter Austin

    Fantastic work!
    The style very much suits representing the data from EMCDDA.

    Thanks for taking the time to write, format. post the article, and all to share these great graphics.

    1. Nigel Hawtin Post author

      Thank you for the lovely comment. An important topic and a great bunch of people to work with, which I think shows In the work produced.

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