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Visualizing Dirty Jobs

Nate Birt

published on October 24, 2014 in Design

Not every person enjoys working in that coveted corner office. In fact, thousands of people are employed in industries that might appear to most of us like a rerun of TV’s “Dirty Jobs”, complete with long hours spent beneath the hot sun hauling garbage, treating wastewater or educating neighborhoods about the need to leave feral cats well enough alone.

As a tribute to these hard-working men and women, we’ve drawn together a selection of visualizations from government, industry and more that pull back the veil on these unheralded jobs. In the process, we hope you’ll enjoy learning a little bit about the work behind the scenes that enables our daily lives to continue in a clean and orderly fashion.

Along the way, we’ll assess the techniques that work (and don’t) when it comes to explaining the sometimes stinky, ever-necessary world of dirty professions. Find a great visualization about a dirty job? Share it by posting a link to this thread.

Wastewater Treatment

In addition to having an incredible century-old history (featuring civic-minded cigar smokers!), the Oro Loma Sanitary District of California is notable for its informative infographic explaining how wastewater is treated:

water treatment diagram

Although the chart is a bit dated, the use of arrows helpfully directs the viewer as raw sewage flows through the system and receives treatment. Some of the water is disinfected and treated for eventual use on a golf course, while sludge is turned into methane gas that helps create energy.

A future version of this infographic might feature a few lines of introductory text and perhaps numbered steps with greater depth of explanation at key stages of the process. 

Total U.S. water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators: 111,000

(Bonus round: Check out this impressive timeline visualization depicting 75 years of DC Water history – it’s an alternative to the diagram approach, and it also works well.)

Trash Collection

With more than a dozen states in its service area, Advanced Disposal not only takes out the trash—it also cleans up with an interesting look at the composition of a landfill:


Rather than guiding viewers through a process, this infographic is more like a visual glossary of key terms that make a landfill operate correctly. The colored subsurface layers enable easy reading, and the text boxes have plenty of breathing space, allowing for point-by-point navigation. The combination of 2D and 3D elements within the illustration, notably the sun beams extending across the entire upper third, adds depth.

(Bonus round: For a look at how the Visually crew has treated this subject, check out this infographic titled “How a Landfill Works”.)

(Bonus round, part 2: To see how other artists have labeled layers within a cross-section, check out this landfill illustration by Republic Services.)

Total U.S. refuse and recyclable materials collectors: 116,460


Admittedly, it was disappointing to find precious little in the way of exterminator-themed infographics on the interwebs. On this other hand, this category appears to be a ripe (oh yes, we went there) opportunity for artists.

Some of the more compelling treatments have to do with specific techniques for putting specific critters permanently to bed. For example, Las Vegas-based exterminator K-9 Sweeps developed the following illustration to explain why heat can help kill bedbugs:

Reasons to Treat Bed Bugs with Heat

We like this infographic because it uses a number of educational data points (though they could easily be made a bit larger to make the point more quickly). What’s more, the background is clean, which draws our eyes to the four sections of text—and to the creepy crawlies skittering over the paper.
Total U.S. pest control workers: 65,400

(Bonus round: Don’t click here if you are deeply fearful of being stung or buzzed at.)


If you’ve ever asked yourself how a particular device functions, the website How Stuff Works is probably one of your guilty pleasures. Because plumbing is naturally a profession that requires workers to get dirty with musty cabinets, gunk-filled pipes and rust, we couldn’t help sharing this beauty of an interactive:


Granted, the level of detail apparent on the interactive is minimal—a handful of terms and arrows along with a button reading “Click to Flush”—but simplicity can be a beautiful thing. Who doesn’t want to flush a virtual toilet?

One final note: When building your own interactives, consider how to place the visualization in relation to the text. You might include a lot of text within the illustration or, as in this case, you can include a high level of detail in a supporting website. Just make sure both are easily shareable via social media and email with a distinct URL.

Total U.S. plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters: 386,900

(Bonus round: It’s not interactive, but this Angie’s List visualization of the world beneath your kitchen sink nicely fuses how-to tips and tricks with a simple illustration that’s easy to read.

Animal Control

In contrast to exterminators, who often deal with creatures that bite and damage—well, who are we kidding? Animal control officers deal with those creatures, too. Yet in addition, animal control units are tasked with educating the public about animals that might or might not pose a threat, helping them understand how to respond.

With that in mind, we expect your first reaction to this one will be, “Aw … .”:


But don’t be fooled: This nontraditional visualization isn’t great simply because it features an adorable, ear-tipped cat. Rather, it draws interest immediately with a compelling question (“Have you seen cats with ears like this?”), clearly written text that explains an important issue (leave Boots alone because he’s on an important mission) and a website where viewers can go for more information.

It’s a good lesson in efficient communication. Seriously, though, don’t touch the cat.

Total animal control workers: 13,590

(Bonus round: Sweet trucks and rabies-prevention facts also come with the territory.)

The Last Word

We could go on, of course—one man’s dirty job is another’s profession of great pride. But you get the idea: Data visualization infographics can be data-rich or data-selective, packed with rich imagery or line-drawn with a few well-placed arrows. Whatever the case, artists, bloggers and others can draw on a variety of sources for good ideas when it comes to telling a story, no matter how messy it might get.