Packed Bubble & Pie Art in Tableau

In the past, I’ve created a number of artistic techniques in Tableau, including Loom Art and Geometric Art. But, for a long time, I’ve wanted to be able to create two additional types of art. The first is what I’d call “packed bubble art”. For example, the following image is taken from a discussion on circle packing on Stack Exchange:

I was beginning to explore creating my own circle packing algorithm in Python when I discovered the Online Shape Packer by Arjan Westerdiep. The tool allows you to upload an image and choose (or upload) an SVG shape to use for the packing, then creates a shape-packed image. For example, here is the Mona Lisa packed using Apple logos.

I wanted to create something more like the elephant above, so I took the following royalty-free image of a flamingo and uploaded it to the tool:

I wanted to pack my image with simple bubbles/circles, so I just chose the circle image for packing. The result was beautiful:

But how to get this into Tableau? Fortunately, the tool allows you to export your image as an SVG. As I’ve discussed before, SVG files are basically XML-based files which define an image. An SVG file defines a variety of shapes that are used to build an image—basic shapes, lines, polygons, etc.—as well as coloring, shading, and a lots of other components of images. Because they are XML, SVG files are text-based and, for the most part, readable by humans. So, I should be able to read one of these SVG images, parse out the coordinates then create them using a scatterplot in Tableau.

To do this, I modified some Python code I’ve used previously to parse SVGs and write the coordinates to a file (more on this shortly). I was then able to create the following in Tableau:

But, I only wanted the circles packed inside of the image—not the background. Fortunately, these bubbles are all very small so removing these simply required me to filter out very small bubbles, resulting in:

Then, so that it was more like the elephant, I used Tableau’s undocumented RANDOM(). I dropped it on the color card, then assigned a discrete color palette.

I then wondered how it would look if we changed the circles to pie charts. To do this, I joined the data to another data set that had four records—A, B, C, and D—then changed the mark type to Pie and dropped another RANDOM() pill on the Angle card to create a flamingo packed with pie charts.

I was pretty happy with this, but the pie charts gave me another idea. I had long admired the work of Mario Klingemann, who has recreated famous works of art using pie charts. For example, here’s his rendering of the Mona Lisa:

Having created a pie-packed flamingo, I wondered if I could take this one step further to create pie-packed works of art. I went back to my Python code and made some adjustments:

1)  As it reads the position of each circle, look at the original image and get the color of the pixel in that position.
2)  Randomly adjust that color to create slightly different colors for each pie slice.

With that code working, I was able to create The Girl with a Pearl Earring using 84,000+ pie charts.

I had so much fun with this that I couldn’t help but recreate one of my favorite photographs, Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry. Below I’m showing the original image transitioning into the pie chart version.

How To
OK, so here’s how you can create your own bubble or pie art in Tableau. First, let’s get the Python code and/or executable package needed. If you’re familiar with Python, you can download the Python Code from Github. If not, you can download the executable package, Pie Extract all the files to your computer, then run Pie Art.exe. Sorry Mac users, but I think this will only work for Windows, but if you really want to try this, I’m happy to help you get Python set up on your machine.

Now follow these steps:

1)  Upload an image to the Online Shape Packer and select the plain filled circle SVG shape. You can fiddle with the Maximum Shape Size if desired, but leave all other settings as the defaults.

2)  Let the shape packer run until the image starts to take shape (OK, that was a bad pun but I couldn’t resist). The more shapes you include, the more detailed the image will be, but it will also be more complicated in Tableau.

3)  Once the image looks good, click the Save SVG button.

4)  Run the Pie Art Python program. The program will prompt you for an SVG. Select the SVG from step 3. It will then prompt for an image. Select the original image used to generate the SVG.

5)  The program will then do its thing. Depending on the number of shapes, it could take a few minutes to complete. Once done, you’ll get a message indicating so and telling you the location of the 2 output files—Colors.csv and Bubbles.csv.

6)  Colors.csv looks something like this:

Copy the Hex Color column and create a new custom Tableau color palette.If you’re not familiar with creating a custom color palette, read this.

7)  Bubbles.csv looks this:

The file has 7 columns:

ID – Unique ID for the bubble/pie.

X – X coordinate for the center of the bubble/pie.

Y – Y coordinate for the center of the bubble/pie.

Size – Area of the bubble. The SVG file contains the radius, but the Python code converts this to area since Tableau sizes shapes based on area.

Slice – Slice identifier. By default, the Python program creates four slices—A, B, C, and D. If desired, you can change the number of slices by changing the value of sliceCount in the Python code.

Color ID – In order to avoid creating a huge color palette, the Python code assigns an ID to each unique color used. We’ll use this to assign the color palette we created earlier.

Slice Size – Randomly chosen size for each slice.

8)  Connect to the Bubbles.csv file in Tableau. For performance reasons, go ahead and create an extract.

9)  Click over to a new sheet. Also for performance reasons, pause Auto Updates. Drag X to the Columns shelf and Y to the Rows shelf. Change both to dimensions.

10)  Fix both the X and Y axes so that they start at 0 and match the width/height of the original image. Also, reverse the Y axis.

11)  Turn off all lines and set the background to a default color. I typically use black but you can experiment with different colors.

12)  Drag ID and Slice to the detail card; Drag Size to the size card; Change the mark type to Pie; Drag Slice Size to the angle card. You should now have something like this:

13)  Drag Color ID to the color card, then click on the color card, choose the palette created earlier and click Assign Palette. This will assign the colors in the proper order.

14)  Create a new dashboard. Set the dimensions to equal the dimensions of the original image (or just ensure you maintain the correct aspect ratio). Remove the color legend and float the size legend.

15)  Edit the size legend so that the pies fill the space. I personally like to leave a bit of black around each pie as it adds a nice effect.

And that’s all there is to it!!

Note: If you want to just create packed bubbles, instead of a pie chart, follow these same steps, then just filter on Slice, keeping only “A”. Then, if desired, you can even use custom shapes. For example:

And, of course, if you’d like to create a more mono-chrome image like the flamingo, you can choose a single color or use the random color technique I discussed earlier.

Hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you create any bubble or pie art using this technique, please let me know.

Ken Flerlage, April 6, 2020


  1. Amazing. Thank you so much for the posting it!
    One Question- How do I blend Bubbles.csv to my own data? do I need to add a new column for that?
    Thanks again,

    1. The Bubbles.csv file will be generated based on the image you provide. What other kind of data are you trying to add to it?

    2. I am hoping to take a car picture and use the bubbles to plot information about car accidents

    3. This is just for artistic purposes at the moment--it cannot be used to encode real data, unfortunately, though that's something I'm considering doing at some point

    4. Hi Yaron, in order to tie your data to the bubbles you have to map your data to the X and Y coordinates in the data. Here is an example I build recently with this post as my inspiration. I did a picture of a vaccine bottle and tied my data to certain bubbles showing the correlation between covid 19 vaccine acceptance and socio-demographic factors in the US!

  2. Well, it was still a lot of fun :-) Thanks again!

  3. Ran Pie Art.exe but the Colors.csv and Bubbles.csv are empty :(
    (SVG file is ok with the correct image (53127kb), so ist the original picture, what else could've gone wrong?)

    1. Hmmm. Not sure. Could you email me the SVG and the original image?

  4. Same problem from my end .Output files after the pie art python program ran are looking empty.

    1. Please send me an email with the original image and the generated SVG.

    2. I am facing same problem too.

    3. I'd have to see the files. Can you email them to me?

  5. Hi Ken,

    Great tutorial, thank you :)

    What settings did you use on the online shape packer tool? I'm using a PNG black shape (white background), but the circles in the white space are sometimes bigger than those in the black

    1. You need to use the plain filled circle SVG shape that is already available on the shape packing tool.

  6. My windows firewall won't run the package. My antivirus hates it too. :(

    1. Do you have another computer you can use?

    2. I got it to work! I had to adjust some firewall settings, but I took a screen shot and now its my profile pic. Thank you so much for this tutorial! This was fun!

  7. Hello Ken, where and how should we enter the path of the svg ?

    1. When you run the Python program, it will prompt you to select the svg file.

  8. Love the flamingo! :-) I would love to be able to fit circles to a map; but I need to be able to control the size and colour of the circles individually (they refer to the size of something).

  9. Great tutorials, thank so much!! I had a lot of fun on geometric arts and loom arts in Tableau following your other two blogs but no luck with this one. The online shape packer is not working well at my end. The "Save Svg" button is not responding at all. Guess I will have to try another time.
    Feeling thankful for being in this excellent community and hats off to you and all many other experts.

  10. These graphics are great ! I tried to replicate with my data, I don't need to overlay an image, I just need non hierarchical bubble chart with 2 data series filling the bubbles. However I cannot get there. Using a data structure like in bubbles.csv , with no X-Y coordinates, when I use a mark=pie I get a single pie, when I change to mark=circle I get all the circles with the same colour, but no pies. How can I solve this issue ? any help is greatly appreciated.

    1. I'd need to see a workbook. Could you contact me via email?


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