Talk: “Datavisualisation – age-old, brand new” (Helsinki)

As you may have figured, the history of information vis is one of my favourite research topics at the moment, and I am happy to present some of my findings whenever I can.

So I gladly took the opportunity to dig deeper into the subject I had only scratched upon in my earlier talk in Potsdam this summer when I was invited to hold a keynote talk at the “Visualising Knowledge” conference in Helsinki.

The conference, now in its fourth year, forms part of Helsinki Design Week and again united a range of speakers from science, art, journalism and design. Among others, the great line-up included Jan-Willem Tulp and Jussi Ängleslevä from Berlin-based ART+COM Studios.

“Fiscal Chart” from the 1870 Statistical Atlas of the United States, edited by Francis Amasa Walker

In my talk, I presented a range of historical pieces from the realms of cartography and statistics, among which the awesome and always mind-boggling Ebstorf World Map from around 1300 as well as the famous Waldseemüller World Map, but also lesser known pieces from the 1870 US census atlas (above) and the almost unknown “Relational map of the German States” by Friedrich August Wilhelm Crome from ca. 1820 (below).

Detail from Friedrich August Wilhelm Crome, Relational Map of the German States, ca. 1820
Detail from Friedrich August Wilhelm Crome, Relational Map of the German States, ca. 1820

As you can see in the detail shot, this latter piece features an early (and quite striking) use of pie charts — a fact which triggered an interesting discussion during the Q&A after my talk. The pie charts show several data dimensions at a time, in a rather inefficient manner. It is these curious details, when you can see how scientists and designers were struggling to create meaningful visualisations, which make the history of info vis both instructive and entertaining for us today.

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