VDS Digest

A weekly roundup of the visual press.

The world relies on China to process materials.

China & The Race for Electric Cars

By undefined, Oct 9 2023

By this time next time I will have turned 30.

I don’t know whether I’d feel much different on the guilty morning, but I do know these past few weeks, heck, probably months, have been a fruitful time to reflect upon life.

I’ll be starting a new job I’m excited about, and I hope I’ll be able to continue expanding my knowledge about the world and how to tell stories about it. “Learn it as if you had to teach it”, to paraphrase Feynman, would be my advice on retrospect.

The quest to knowledge has no limit, and it’s a skillful art to know how to tell a compelling story from it. This is the purpose of this newsletter, and more generally of everything I try to write here and there.

May I continue doing just that, starting with the two main topics I will cover this week, before the miscellaneous:

  • China, raw materials, and electric cars—The New-York Times, The Financial Times, Bloomberg
  • From poverty to empowerment, by McKinsey

China, raw materials, and electric cars

This is multi-sided story involving critical materials in the green energy transition, and how China controls most of the supply chain of it. Many articles in the press recently dedicated visual reports about it, and I suggest here a comparative analysis of:

Electrification is instrumental in the green transition, especially to batteries of electric cars for which demand is expected to surge: The Financial Times

And we learn in Bloomberg, always with a strong leading color, that China is indeed the biggest EV market: Bloomberg

Electric cars are made of important materials, the rare earths, used in the batteries.

Where are they coming from, how are they processed, and who controls their supply chain?

Among the first illustrations by both NYT and FT tackle the question of the supply chain, largely operated by China, with a natural flow visual metaphor: The New-York Times FT

From here, a natural question is how much of each of these steps China does control. This is visual thread in NYT, which uses unit charts tailored to the story to show China’s part-to-whole contribution: NYT NYT NYT

Similar concerns in FT or Bloomberg, though at different scales and with different lenses. FT considers all the rare earths chain—which are also used in wind turbines—while Bloomberg focuses on EV battery supply chain: FT Bloomberg

FT and NYT have illustrations for the most technical details, about motors, the electric cells, or the periodic table: FT NYT FT FT

It’s an additional information I have not seen elsewhere about how much it would cost Europe or the US to become self-reliant, in a tree map: Bloomberg

Both the NYT and FT approaches use key message in the titles of the charts: “Rare earths are essentials to the green energy transition” (FT), “China controls essential rare minerals” (NYT) or “China Leads Global EV Sales” (Bloomberg).

But while NYT and FT are not fatalist with the use of a question in the title—“can we go green without China?” (FT), “can we make electric cars without China?” (NYT)—, Bloomberg sounds more pessimistic: “it will be tough”.

Well said.

From poverty to empowerment—McKinsey

McKinsey’s reports are like ASMR for business people.

They are sharply designed, seamlessly articulated, and have simple and compelling messages.

They are good stories.

They are stories but, as is often the case, parade under the costume of statistical objectivity.

And as I like to analyze stories in general, I will try to analyze how a recent report by McKinsey—From poverty to empowerment: Raising the bar for sustainable and inclusive growth— frames its narrative, and how it translates visually.

The key point of the report is that growth is not only compatible with sustainable goals, but also with economical empowerment. In that regard, I have found it to be masterful, and many key aspects are already included in the maybe overtly cliché opening illustration:

An hexmap on a rotating globe and everything is gonna be alright

We are in for a better world with the open palms, usually associated with truth, honesty, and openness, the inclusive circle of human 3D silhouettes, and the tree leaves to unify two contradictory—but only in appearances according to McKinsey—concepts: sustainability and growth. However, I haven’t identified the coloring of the map to be data driven, so I figure it is probably an emphasis on a traditional North-South opposition.

We will probably learn how to get all together in peace and finally make the world one united place for all!

It does feel a bit cliché, but clichés are often effective.

The first diagram is data-free, but instrumental to establish the virtuous cycle between growth and innovation, the net-zero transition and economic inclusion: In this great mystery solved by McKinsey, this virtuous cycle is “exhibit 1” (top left)

McKinsey wants to expand its market and find new customers for its consulting firm. But instead of simply saying “let’s make more money”, the authors re-frame the narrative with an “empowerment line”, under which lies an environmental or economical gap that should be filled.

Note how the titles are key messages of the story, either about:

  • mean value, as above: “4.7 billion people live below the empowerment line”,
  • part-to-whole: “Market led opportunity could led the world halfway to the goals” or
  • extrema values: “Sub-Saharan has the highest unfilled gap”

This gap-but-really-more-money is realigned with the two major global challenges we face today, the green transition and economical inequalities. As main protagonist of the story, this gap is highlighted in every charts of the report, which is made easy with McKinsey’s dual use of colors: But really, it’s as much the prospective market as the gap which is emphasized.

Most of the report is based on McKinsey’s predictive models, but nothing marks a visual difference between historical and predicted data. Once again, the inherent authority of statistical visualization is at play here with crispy shapes and assertive colors.

The visual elements are short and impactful story points, the titles are well crafted, the charts well designed, and as a whole the report enables a strong association between growth—or making more money—and the green transition.

It is a powerful visual metaphor that of “empowerment line”, and I do wonder why they never capitalized on this image when designing the charts. I pity the fools who use a visual metaphor to make a point, but never end up drawing it.


Bloomberg went all-in on how Russia and others avoid international sanctions to export oil in aging and unreliable ships: How an Aging Armada and Mystery Traders Keep Russian Oil Afloat , by Alaric Nightingale @AlaricN, design by Demetrios Pogkas @pogkas.

Bloomberg explored Apple’s list of suppliers and its Asian tropism: Apple’s iPhone Supply Chain Splinters Under US-China Tensions

A small-multiples approach with a striking effect about renewable capacity: US climate chief rails at Asian coal as geopolitical tensions shadow UN summit (The Financial Times)

Which made me think of this other chart by The New-York Times, with an equally striking effect: The Washington Post investigated about life expectancy for a year, and the dossier opens with a visually appealing illustration: Compare your life expectancy with others around the world (The Washington Post) by Leslie Shapiro @lmshap, Carson TerBush and Dan Keating.

And some striking comparisons from the in-depth analysis: Or this focus on the US, with an insisting focus on smoking-related deaths and cigarette tax rates: How red-state politics are shaving years off American lives (The Washington Post)

Climate change will also impact coffee production: Have we reached peak coffee? (The Financial Times)

The effect of gentrification on Black communities, here in London: How London Lost Its Place at the Heart of Black Britain (Bloomberg), by Demetrios Pogkas

Note 1 : Should I make this newsletter mobile-first? Note 2 : I should definitely make it shorter. Note 3 : But I have very much enjoyed writing this edition. It gave me much joy, and I think it’s what matters.

See you when I’m one year older,

Mathieu Guglielmino

VDS Digest

A weekly roundup of the visual press.