When I came across Michelle Rial’s images, I couldn’t tell if they were webcomics, infographics, or just the quirky brainchildren of a peculiar mathematical hobbyist.

Now I know: they’re all three.

Her graphs and charts routinely go viral on Instagram. Please revel in that unlikely phrase: *Her graphs and charts routinely go viral*. A Venn diagram on imposter syndrome has 5,000 likes. A graph about beanies has 13,000. The images are irresistibly tactile: they’re made of cheese chunks, coffee stains, dog-eared books, and plastic straws.

They are, for lack of a better phrase, data visualizations. It’s just that the “data” are bursts of personal insight, and the “visualizations” consist of, say, watermelon rinds. Math teachers, take note: She has turned old mathematical forms into a vivid and intimate kind of self-expression. Graphs haven’t been this cool since Mean Girls.

Speaking of which:

I myself have unbounded fondness for cheese and graphs; combine the two, and you have reached the center of a truly magical Venn diagram. I had lots of questions for Michelle about her tasty craft, which she was gracious enough to answer.

**What drew you to working with mathematical visuals?**

Since the day I’m writing this is five months since my dad died, I’m going to say it’s a lot of his doing. He always encouraged me to do math, gave me “summer homework,” and helped me appreciate how the beauty of the world often had a mathematical origin.

**So you enjoyed math as a student?**

I almost majored in math and did a sudden pivot to journalism school because of one book my roommate was reading about art direction in advertising. It had a lot of beautiful, conceptual, smart imagery. In the end, I merged both interests.

**Why did you move from creating infographics to these quirky, simple graphs?**

I was trying to heal from several neck and shoulder injections for some chronic repetitive strain injuries. I had also just read Elle Luna’s *The Crossroads of Should and Must, *and had quit my job because I felt that even though I SHOULD keep working, I MUST heal.

I was inspired by her 100 day project to just work on something simple. So I decided to make simple charts.

**What inspired you to start using physical objects?**

So, I’m obsessed with the Fibonacci sequence (like I said before, my dad shared a lot of these things with me when I was young, and some of them really stuck with me). One of the first things I did as I was healing was to draw easy, loose patterns around objects that I later realized had a Fibonacci element to them (pinecones, succulents).

The first chart + object was during an ant infestation. I HATE ants so I drew a scale of how much I hate ants, put the paper on the floor, let the ant crawl on it, and took a video when it was where I wanted it on the scale.

I also got really fixated on positive feedback cycles (and doom). The match/climate change chart captures that obsession a bit.

I am definitely influenced by some of my favorite artists who do beautiful, smart things with objects: Marian Bantjes, Christoph Niemann, Stephan Sagmeister.

**Is making the graphs cathartic? Do they ever help you find a wiser perspective on what’s worrying you?**

Yes, but not until time has passed since I’ve made it and I see it with fresh eyes. I once made a diagram to try to solve a fight with someone and it worked.

**Have any graphs resonated more widely than you expected?**

Yes, the “too late” one.

When I was sending sample images to press, I never thought to include it. It’s even relevant to me and my story, in that I started over pretty late, but I didn’t even realize it at the time.

**Do you have any favorites that you feel are overlooked?**

The ones I spend a lot of time on, the ones that seem most conceptual to me, are the least interesting to the majority of people. The ones that resonate most are self-help-y, but I’m most proud of the ones that are funny/smart or artistic.

**What is it about graphs, charts, and diagrams that make them so suitable for capturing “overthinking”? Is it the simplicity? The complexity? Both?**

Both! They’re formulas and can be turned into life equations and they can be simple or they can go in circles or just have too much information.

I have a bit of a mental tangent problem which causes a lot of my overthinking. (Tangents = math!) Maybe this is reaching, but if you think about sin/cos/tan you’re essentially moving all over the map (visiting every possible outcome) but still going in circles (ruminating).

*Michelle Rial’s book is Am I Overthinking This? The answer is yes, and the book is a delight.*

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