Preview: The History of Infographics, as seen by the experts (June 2019)


My new book “The History of Information Graphics” looks at the rich history of infographics and data visualisation, tracing their evolution from the Middle Ages right through to today’s computer-based visualisation.

I am especially happy and honoured that four experts on the history of information graphics have contributed to this book: David Rumsey, Michael Friendly, Michael Stoll, and Scott Klein. This post is a preview of their individual chapters.

 

David Rumsey has been a collector of historical maps for over 25 years now (screenshot above). What I specifically appreciate about his work is his tireless commitment to make his enormous collection available to the public. As early as the 1990s, David Rumsey began to create digitized copies for many of his maps, and to provide high-resolution scans of historical works (most of which are in the public domain) via his online database. In his chapter, David shares a selection of maps which go beyond the geographic description in order to incorporate additional information or data layers:

Big data and technology’s ability to record every aspect of life grows beyond our imagination. Maps can adapt to express this information in powerful and useful ways. And as we look forward to these new methods, we can look back at how our maps showed data in the past, as this book does, and gain a greater understanding of what is to come.

 

The research of Michael Friendly (above) has been a source of inspiration and input for my own work for many years now. Not only did he provide pioneering research on Charles-Joseph Minard, which helped pave the way for my own book about him. Michael also tirelessly collected all examples and specimen of early data visualization that he could find, and made them available through his milestones project. This vast collection of historical material contributed substantially to our understanding how the practice of depicting statistics visually has evolved. In his chapter, Michael shares some of his favourites and explains how these “milestones” have inspired others to follow:

My main interest over many years has been in the history of data visualization, particularly as it has been used to tell useful and important sto­ ries about natural and social phenomena, where the design and presentation in a graphic was a key aspect in either discovery or communication.

 

Michael Stoll (screenshot above) is a graphic designer and professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Augsburg, Germany. Over the past two decades, he collected an incredible collection of historical information graphics in single sheets, brochures, large format posters and maps, and books, which he also widely exhibited.

It is an enormous pleasure to browse the collection together with Michael, not least because he brings a deep knowledge about graphic production techniques and printing procedures. Therefore, he can analyze in detail exactly how specific graphic effects had been created. In his chapter, Michael focussed on depictions of humans, and of machines:

The power of the information graphic is not in clarifying, explaining, and conveying information alone, rather it is found where the infographic functions as a catalyst for consensus­oriented social progress through attractive user­oriented design.

 

The chapter of Scott Klein is a particularly interesting and important contribution, because it presents an under-represented genre of historical infographics: the graphics produced for newspapers and magazines. Scott is a journalist at ProPublica, and beside his day job has collected specimen of historical newspaper graphics for many years.

In his selection of examples and in his text, he emphasizes how these graphics were produced under a lot of restraints – with only simple technical means at hand (reproducing high-quality images in newspapers wasn’t possible until late in the 19th century), and often at a tight deadline. For most of these works, we do not have the names of the editors and graphic artists. Another interesting aspect is, that in 19th century newspaper infographics we see that the editors felt the need to explain to their readers how a diagram works – which makes us understand how far we’ve come in terms of general graphical literacy:

The people who conceived of and executed these infographics also worked without the guaran­tee of a graphics-­literate audience. While the graphics of Playfair, Minard, Snow, and Nightingale were meant to be seen by a small coterie of academ­ics or policy­makers, these newspaper infographics were viewed by hundreds of thousands of people who may never have seen such a thing before. Many of the early examples come with long stretches of text explaining how to read a chart that we might consider innately legible today.

A huge “Thank you!” to these experts and collectors for their contributions. The History of Information Graphics (Taschen publishing) is scheduled for worldwide release in June 2019. Get it from TASCHEN.