A brief history of infographics

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There’s no worse feeling than being confronted with information you just can’t understand. Very few of us are capable of digesting and comprehending large quantities of data — it’s far more likely that we end up staring at a sheet of paper (or a screen), with numbers and data leaving us confused. That’s why information graphics have become so popular in the past few years. Known as infographics, they are simply visual representations of information or data. “As a direct result of the explosion in demand for online content, infographics are now everywhere,” explain the animation experts at Frantic. This is “primarily for their ability to show cold, hard facts quickly and simply”. In the age of Big Data, the only way to understand the world is to, well, map it.

However, infographics did not appear hand-in-hand with the rise of digital media. In fact, humans have been found to visualise data thousands of years ago. So what is the history of infographics? Where did they come from? And when did they start gaining popularity? Here, we’ll try to answer these questions and more.

Where it all started

Millennia before mankind developed the ability to read and write, humanity relied on graphics to convey information. Turning everyday life into images, cavemen drew paintings that illustrated births, battles, animals, and other significant beings or events. The drawings in the French Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave, for example, can be traced back to 37,000 BC, and is believed to have been painted following a volcanic eruption.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are probably the most famous manifestation of ancient infographics. By using symbols, Egyptians from around 3000 BC communicated letters, words, and concepts with each other, and future readers. The Babylonians in 600 BC triangulated their region to create their Map of the World, which is the oldest surviving world map. Although the chart is not a true representation of the region, it was a huge step forward in the way humans interpret information using graphics.

Medieval and Enlightenment

Speaking of maps — perhaps one of the most significant forms of infographics — the Dunhuang Star Atlas charted more than 1,300 stars visible from north-central China with remarkable accuracy, dating back to 649 AD. Prior to this map, much doubt existed about star information mentioned in traditional Chinese texts. The atlas managed to provide graphic verification of this knowledge.

The stars were of huge importance during this time period, not just in the East but also the West. In 816 AD, the Leiden Aratea was published. This astronomical treatise included a number of monumentous infographics, one of which being the famous Planetarium, a diagram of the positions of the seven planets and their routes.

Around 800 years later, the world entered the Age of Enlightenment, which brought forward many more detailed infographics. British polymath Joseph Priestley was one of the leading figures of the era, creating the ‘Chart of Biography’. This mammoth of an infographic detailed the lives of around 2,000 notable people from 1200 BC to 1764 AD, organising them into easy-to-view categories: Statesman and Warriors; Divines and Metaphysicians; Mathematicians and Physicians; Poets and Artists; Orators and Critics; and Historians and Antiquarians. Perhaps the most interesting part about it is that the entries were chosen by fame rather than merit, representing public opinion at the time. Priestley identified the need of infographics, remarking that pictures conveyed information “with more exactness, and in much less time, than it [would take] by reading”.

Industrial revolution

Despite the fact many infographics existed in various forms throughout history, up until the Industrial Revolution, there was limited data available and, as a result, few informational graphics were created. This all began to transform with the major changes of the early 19th century, as countries began to collect and publish data en masse. Weather, health, economy, population, and other aspects of human life became widespread, and the need to organise them in a manner that would be easily viewed and understood was made essential. What’s more, social issues could now be backed with facts and presented to the general public.

One of the people who made infographics what they are today was William Playfair. Living on the cusp between the end of the Enlightenment and the start of modern times, he became known as the father of statistical graphics. He invented the line, bar, area, and pie charts, all of which are still commonly in use. As a Scottish engineer, he apprenticed as a teenager to James Watt. Playfair was in charge of drawing up patents, and developed a love for both art and numbers. Following his apprenticeship, he became a political economist but, unlike his fellow scholars, he presented his findings in graphic form rather than a table.

His most distinguished work was a chart that mapped out wages and the price of wheat. At the time, grains were expensive and a catalyst for complaints from the nascent working class. Many claimed that the prices were driven up by growing wages. Playfair compared the two and showed that income was, in fact, rising at a lower rate than the cost of the product. Using his invention of the pie chart, he also showed the British paid higher taxes than other nations. He famously noted that data must “speak to the eyes” as they are “the best judge of proportion, being able to estimate it with more quickness and accuracy than any other of our organs”.

The road from Playfair’s work to infographics becoming an invaluable tool for the progress of humanity was short. In 1854, physician John Snow used a graphic visualisation of cholera incidents in London to find a large cluster around a water pump on Broad Street. This helped him convince the council to close the area, and as the disease rates diminished, it aided in the discovery of a much more significant conclusion — diseases are caused by contact with a contagion.

Three years later, famous nurse Florence Nightingale mapped out the deaths during the Crimean War, to find out that most soldiers hadn’t died in combat — but rather of ‘preventable diseases’ that were caused by poor hygiene. Her rose diagrams visualised the masses of data she collected, which in turn urged the Queen and Parliament to act. A sanitary commission was quickly set up to improve conditions, causing death rates to fall.

Modernity

By the late 19th century, statistics became prevalent amongst every layer of society, thanks to data visualisation. And in the 20th century, graphic representations of information became wide-spread in everyday life as well. In 1933, Harry Beck designed a map of the London Underground that displayed tube lines, routes, and stations available to Londonders. German graphic designer Oti Aicher used stick figure-looking icons for his minimalist posters for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, which has been the basis of design for street signs ever since. Even NASA has been using infographics on aluminium plaques aboard their space-crafts, in case they interact with alien life forms.

Now, data is more important than ever. With new professions like data journalism, we further understand how vital it is to be able to collect and analyse data, while also presenting it in a way that everybody can comprehend. People are increasingly data literate, and we are finding more and more ways to make the consumption of large quantities of data even simpler. It’s hard to tell where the future is heading for infographics — all we know is that they’re not going anywhere. Who knows, maybe in a few years we’ll be able to see VR headsets that graphically depict our surroundings. Whatever happens, we’ve come a long way since drawing on cave walls.