Sex by numbers

20 February 2015

When it comes to our sex lives we all like to keep a few secrets, making the jobs of sexologists pretty difficult, but in 1990, Natsal began lifting the lid on the sex lives of over 45,000 people. Professor David Spiegelhalter has explored their data and more in his book that accompanies our Sexology Season.

Inspired by all of this, Nice and Serious offer us a glimpse through windows into the world of sex to explore Natsal’s fascinating statistics. Tom Tapper explains how the creative agency approached turning decades’ worth of sex stats into an engaging infographic.

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As one of the biggest studies into sexual behaviour in the world, Natsal promised to shine a light into the bedroom behaviours of the British public. Although statistics aren’t sexy, working in our favour was the age-old adage that sex sells. So our challenge was to sex up the stats. But we didn’t want to strip out the science or the sensitive issues.

After a few brainstorms and some childish giggling – we settled on a concept that revolved around windows. By stacking a series of windows on top of each other, like a block of flats, it gave us the visual space to peek into the lives of the British public. Each level would feature an issue and each window would bring that to life through an illustration. It also gave us a nice narrative journey: starting on the roof tops, moving down through the windows and then finally onto the street level where users could then find out more about the Sexology season or buy the associated book, Sex by Numbers, by Prof. David Spiegelhalter.


The website is an interactive infographic, so selecting the right data is everything. The Natsal survey generated vast swathes of stats, so we needed to select the right bits. Luckily we we had an all star team from Wellcome, Profile Books, Natsal, David Spiegelhalter and the Nice and Serious creatives. We looked for the most interesting data sets – the sort of stuff people would discuss with friends at the pub. These would pull users into the site and compel them to share with their friends. The data needed to be illuminating. It needed to show change over time or an anomaly that would shed some light on an interesting social and cultural issue. Finally, we needed to cover a broad range of issues across behaviours, attitudes, age groups, sexualities and genders. We had to balance being entertaining, whilst also being informative.

With a data visualisation project, you need to start with the data. Obvious, right? We didn’t want to run the risk of the data becoming subservient to the style. We wanted the convey the trend in the simplest way possible. The result was that we predominantly used line graphs. In our eyes, line graphs are the simplest way of showing changes over time – and are easy to understand with just a quick glance. We considered mixing it up with bar and pie graphs for variety, but ultimately felt this would complicate things.

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By standardising the visualisation of data, it creates a visual language that users pick up quickly and then apply to the rest of site. This improves the user experience. There were only a couple of instances where we had to step away from the line graph, because the complexity of the data sets needed a more customised graph. Overall, we wanted to keep the graphs simple. Really simple.

But we faced a problem. The data sets varied; some used data from different ages ranges, some included hetrosexual data only, others a mix of heterosexual and homosexual. This was unfortunate, but the reality of a large scale survey taken over three decades. If we tried to explain the demographic data behind each graph the site would become cluttered, but if we didn’t we would be potentially misleading users. To overcome this we created an expandable information box to allow users to dive deeper into the demographics behind the data.


While many of the issues are light hearted, some of them are very sensitive, such as sexual diseases, paying for sex and non-consensual sex. We didn’t want to shy away from these, as they’re incredibly important. So for these issues, we had to think creatively about the illustration, so we didn’t belittle the issue. In the case of non-consensual sex we paired back the illustration to a simple drawn curtain.

What were the biggest challenges?

  • Selecting the most interesting bits of data from a vast data set.
  • Making sure a broad range of issues were covered, not just the sexy/popular bits.
  • Hitting the right tone; making it approachable and amusing, while not undermining the integrity of the data or the importance of some of the issues covered.
  • Communicating the nuances in the data sets, without cluttering up the graphs
  • Not making the illustrations too crass!
  • Making sure the graphs display well on desktops, tablets and mobiles.

Tom is the Creative Director of creative agency, Nice and Serious.