D3 Without SVG

Typically, when creating interactive visualizations with d3.js, you are building your graphics up in SVG. While much of the D3 library is platform-independent, and there is even a small example using just html in the D3 tutorials, SVG is the typically used for all but the simplest D3 experiments.

Recently, the New York Times published an interactive visualization on the electorial map for the up-coming American presidential election. It features a bubble chart inspired interactive ‘game’ in which users can make their own predictions about which way undecided states will swing to see how the election might turn out.

I think its a great piece. One detail that isn’t immediately apparent until you start looking at the code is that the entire visualization is built with no SVG. This means that the entire visualization works great in both modern browsers and old ones that don’t support SVG like IE8 (I tested it and its just a little less smooth then in Chrome, but otherwise fine).

Here I’d like to look at just this one facet of how this visualization was made: how they use D3 without SVG.

SVG-less D3 Demo

To explore how the NYT group created their visualization, I’ve created a small demo using the same methods they did. The result is below:



Here is the code for this visualization on github

And the corresponding CSS

Before looking at the implementation details, let’s get a high-level overview of how this works:

First we create a class that represents a bubble in the vis. This class is called SimpleBubble. It stores the data as well as the visual representation for that data. Here, the visual component is a series of divs that are styled using css.

By class I really mean that it is a constructor function with additional methods added to it’s prototype object . In javascript, there are no classes, but an object inherits properties from it’s prototype object. And functions in javascript are really Function objects . So a function has a prototype object to inherit functionality from. By defining ‘methods’ at the prototype level, we can instantiate instances of the function object (in this case, the bubbles in the graph), and they retain these methods. There are lots of posts online that explain javascript prototypes more. Here is one about OO in JS .

Next we create a class that represents the entire visualization. This SimpleVis class is handed the data we want to visualize, and the name of the DOM element to build the visualization at. It then instantiates SimpleBubble objects to store and visualize this data. The D3 force layout is used to position/move the bubbles and is kept at the SimpleVis level.

Sound good? Ok, lets look at the nitty-gritty of how this works.

Useful jQuery Methods

This visualization depends a lot on jQuery to make things easier. Before we look at the demo code, it might be useful to explain the jQuery methods used.


The proxy method wraps a function in a particular context . This is very similar to the fat arrow => in coffeescript . In fact, the class-based approach used in this demo would make it a good candidate for implementation in coffeescript. However, the NYT visualization used the prototype approach, so I wanted to try it out as well, for this demo.

proxy used in the demo and the original visualization to keep a consistent context inside of mouse-related callback functions. This allows us to get access to the location and data of the specific SimpleBubble that is being moused over to display in the tooltip.


append is used to combine the various divs used to make up the SimpleBubble visual representation. It is similar to d3.append, but works on jQuery objects. append is also used to add the bubbles to the main visualization div.


The compliment to append, remove removes an element from the DOM. We use it here as a way to get rid of the tooltip box. Probably not the most efficient method, but it works.

Now that the jQuery introduction is over, lets look in more detail at the two classes that make up this demo, starting with our data container/view class SimpleBubble.


As mentioned above, instances of SimpleBubble store the data and DOM elements used to represent a bubble. Below is its init function which gets called in the constructor when we say something like var b = new SimpleBubble(data, id, canvas); :

SimpleBubble.prototype.init = function() {
/_ Elements that make up the bubbles display_/
this.el = $("<div class='bubble' id='bubble-" + this.id + "'></div>");
  this.elFill = $("<div class='bubbleFill'></div>");

/_ Attach mouse interaction to root element _/
/_ Note use of \$.proxy to maintain context _/
this.el.on('mouseover', $.proxy(this.showToolTip, this));
  this.el.on('mouseout', $.proxy(this.hideToolTip, this));

/_ Set CSS of Elements _/
this.radius = this.data;
this.boxSize = this.data \* 2;

width: this.boxSize,
height: this.boxSize,
left: -this.boxSize / 2,
top: -this.boxSize / 2,
"background-color": colors(this.data)});

So first we create some free standing divs that will make up the visual representation of the bubble. We store them as part of the SimpleBubble instance. the jQuery.append() method is used to attach the sub-elements to the root this.el element.

This demo only uses one sub-element, this.elFill. The NYT Visualization uses a number of child elements to hold text, background images, etc.

The jQuery.proxy() method is used to allow us to use tooltip functions defined in SimpleBubble to show and hide the tooltip when mousing.

Finally, CSS is applied using the jQuery object’s css method for the child elFill element. This is done to position it correctly inside the parent element.

Getting the positioning correct requires just the right css position incantations. While this all could be specified in the javascript, I decided to put them in a stand-alone CSS file, since they are not dependent on any data associated with the bubble. Here is the CSS applied to the bubble elements:

.bubble {
display: block;
position: absolute;

.bubbleFill {
position: absolute;
display: block;
border: solid 1px white;
-webkit-border-radius: 70px;
-moz-border-radius: 70px;
border-radius: 70px;

You can see that the main .bubble elements and their .bubbleFill child elements have their positions set to absolute. This means .bubble element’s position is based on its parent element (the main visualization div) and .bubbleFill element’s position is based on .bubble. So modifying the left and top stylings of .bubble will be done relative to the main visualization element (and not the entire page) and will in turn modify its child element’s positions.

The other thing to note is that we use the border-radius property to make the divs into circles. This leads to a complication with IE, as will be talked about more later.

Speaking of moving the bubbles, let’s look really quickly at the move method:

SimpleBubble.prototype.move = function() {
this.el.css({top: this.y, left:this.x});

Pretty simple. The bubble’s x and y are expected to be modified by SimpleVis. The move function just modifies the css of the bubble to shift its position. This isn’t the most abstracted way to implement this functionality, but it works.

The data given to the bubble instance in this demo is a simple integer used to determine its size. In a real visualization, you would probably use a javascript object to pass more information to the SimpleBubble for it to store.

The tooltip labels are lazily done, because I got lazy, so lets not focus on those, ok?


SimpleVis stores the force layout, creates new SimpleBubble instances for each data point, and moves these bubbles based on the force layout. Most of this functionality is in it’s init method, so lets look at that:

SimpleVis.prototype.init = function() {
/_ Store reference to original this _/
var me = this;

/_ Initialize root visualization element _/
width: this.width,
height: this.height,
"background-color": "#eee",
position: "relative"});

/_ Create Bubbles _/
for(var i=0; i< this.data.length; i++) {
var b = new SimpleBubble(this.data[i], i, this.canvas);
/_ Define Starting locations _/
b.x = b.boxSize + (20 _ (i+1));
b.y = b.boxSize + (10 _ (i+1));
/_ Add root bubble element to visualization _/

/_ Setup force layout _/
this.force = d3.layout.force()
.size([this.width, this.height])
.on("tick", function(e) {
me.bubbles.forEach( function(b) {
me.setBubbleLocation(b, e.alpha, me.centers);


Ok, so first we setup the div that will be holding our visualization. this.canvas is a jQuery object wrapped around a div present in the page. This div gets passed into the SimpleVis constructor, as we will see. Here the position is set to relative using the css method instead of in a static style-sheet. This is just to show another way it could be done.

Then we iterate over our data and add create new bubbles for each data point. Initial positions are just a guess on my part. They could be set to anything - depending on how you wanted the initial state of your visualization to look.

Finally, the d3.layout.force is initialized. This process is very similar to how my previous bubble chart example worked. Note that a method in SimpleVis determines the next location for each bubble on each tick. And then each bubble is moved to that location.

We use me so that we can refer to the original SimpleVis inside of the tick callback function.

The force’s charge parameter is defined by a function that will be passed each node. Lets look at this function really quickly:

this.bubbleCharge = function(d) {
return -Math.pow(d.radius,1) \* 8;

So, just like before, it uses the node’s radius to determine a relative charge to push away other nodes with. Quick and easy collision ‘detection’.

Lastly, lets checkout the setBubbleLocation method:

SimpleVis.prototype.setBubbleLocation = function(bubble, alpha, centers) {
var center = centers[this.bin(bubble.id)];
bubble.y = bubble.y + (center.y - bubble.y) _ (0.115) _ alpha;
bubble.x = bubble.x + (center.x - bubble.x) _ (0.115) _ alpha;

We can see that we get a center location based on the bubble’s id, then modify the x and y variables to move the bubble closer to that position. This movement is tempered by the force’s alpha, which will decay as time goes on.

Caveats and Trade Offs

The Binding Question

So just because we can use D3 without SVG doesn’t mean its always a great solution. We’ve gained access to D3’s great force directed layout. Using some shims (described below), we can also use D3’s scales and some of its array manipulation features.

We didn’t use one of D3’s most powerful constructs - binding data to the data’s representation using the built in selectAll and data functions. While we certainly can use D3 to bind data to any DOM element, the choice to use a class-based approach to encapsulate the data and representation in SimpleBubble replaced this D3 binding functionality.

More investigation might bring out a way to cleanly use D3’s binding capabilities with more complicated object based representations.

It Works in IE?

The original NYT graphic works great in IE8. This demo has some problems.

Specifically, the round appearance of the bubbles is created using the CSS border-radius property - but IE8 doesn’t support this! So how does the NYT graphic still look good? If the browser is found not to support border-radius, then a static circular image is used instead.

Generating a bunch of .gif images for this demo isn’t something I’m prepared to do, so I’ll have to be satisfied with boxes in IE. But otherwise it is impressive how cross-platform the NYT visualization is. They include a number of tweaks to optimize the experience for the iPad as well. Something that I might look at more later.

Other Tips


This demo also uses es5-shim to add missing functionality to Arrays in IE. The NYT visualization doesn’t use this particular library, but d3 uses some of these functions in places like scales, so its useful to have.


As this bug report points out, loading d3 in IE won’t work unless the page is html5. So keep this in mind.

Here is a link to the code again. Thanks to the NYT group for creating this great graphic to learn from. In a future post, we may explore the drag and drop capabilities that make this visualization so interactive.

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