Information Designers to Know (Before Your Next Infographic)

The trope of “old meets new,” or classic intersects modern, is recurring in the world of design. We often look to classic designers to inspire new and emerging works, and  information design is no different.

How can we question the novelty and the aesthetic value of information design, especially as we’re surrounded by slick new infographic designs and data visualization? How old are the principles we follow – and why do we follow them? Are there alternative perspectives to consider? These are all good questions. I think we can all agree that Edward Tufte is an important information designer. Most of us have read his books or his essays and attended his seminar.

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Dr. John Snow’s map of the cholera outbreak in London in 1854. Note that Snow used the graphic to prove the source of the outbreak, not determine it. Photo Credit: Public Domain (image from Wikimedia Commons)

As we recount those important, stand-out figures of information design, names like William Playfair, John Snow and Charles Joseph Minard also come to mind. And for good reason. Who can argue that demonstrating the contamination of a public water pump (as Snow did in 1854) isn’t an important step in the history of epidemiology? Or that Minard’s visualization of Napolean’s casualties during his army’s invasion of Russia isn’t a strong teaching tool across various disciplines? But what people like Playfair, Snow and Minard have contributed is, really, just a small sample of information design at play. They’ve arguable contributed little to the actual understanding of the field itself.

Information Designers to Know (Before Your Next Infographic)

Important Lessons From a Century Ago: Willard Cope Brinton

Willard Cope Brinton’s 1914 Graphic Methods for Presenting Fact (published by The Engineering Magazine Company) is an extensive guide to the formal considerations of information design. The work reads much like Tufte’s—do this, not that. But in contextualizing the piece as a 100 year-old time capsule, we gain insight into the state of the information design field in a world yet to experience the personal computer, let alone two world wars and the global restructuring that followed.

Here, Brinton places strong emphasis on the benefits of presenting facts in a “clear and interesting manner,” and he even prepares information designers for the eventual virality of their work: “Charts which present new or especially interesting facts are very frequently copied by many magazines.” Brinton goes on to explain his 30-point checklist for graphic presentations and 25-point set of rules for presenters with a final reminder: “When graphic methods are more widely used for portraying quantitative facts, there will be a tremendous gain to accuracy of thought as well as a great saving of that most valuable thing in the world—time.” Perhaps we still find ourselves trying to distill information and communicate in the most efficient way possible—We’re still trying to save time and spread our message.

Adapting Data Graphics: Nigel Holmes

More recently, the work of Nigel Holmes as an “explanation designer” (a moniker he gave himself) is characterized by an “embellishment of data graphics” as well as a consideration for the fashionable techniques of the time. Tufte often criticizes Holmes’ work as “chart junk,” suggesting that his style distracts from the facts at hand. Still, an illustrator by training, Holmes defined the infographic style of Time Magazine from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s.

During a time when the media lacked much access to the front-lines of the Gulf War, information designers sought out new ways to accompany their war-related news with graphic features. Holmes, an outspoken proponent of constructing engaging infographics with more than simple graphs and charts, offers a perspective you may want to consider before trying to give that next infographic what Jessica Helfand and William Drentell call “lab chic.”

Thinking About Process + Pictograms: Otto Neurath

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Otto Neurath published his International System of TYpographic Picture Education (Isotype) in 1936. Photo Credit: Gabi Schaffzin

It’s worth noting an important figure in the field of information design whose work had strong influence, though it lacked staying power. (And, interestingly, whose work is conspicuously absent from all four of Tufte’s books). Otto Neurath believed that the expression of fact was of utmost importance, especially in a Europe having recently been ravaged by World War I.

During his tenure as director of various local museums in Leipzig and Vienna, Neurath designed exhibits for citizens that explained statistics and policies about local communities and their various economic and social concerns. Confounded by the complexities of expressing statistical knowledge through verbal language and the rules which accompany this expression, Neurath turned to a system of pictograms, designed and arranged (sometimes alongside written language) with a logic he felt unattainable through words alone. These pictograms addressed, too, his struggle to convey relevant information in a clear manner, to be consumed and understood by an international audience—a “de-babelzation” of sorts.

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Courtesy of Shutterstock

Neurath eventually titled this mode of information transfer the International System Of TYpographic Picture Education, or Isotype. He set out to build Isotype into a truly international language by assembling a team of designers–most notably Gerd Arntz, who had significant influence on the eventual look and feel of Isotype’s famous wood-cut aesthetic.

Neurath placed strong emphasis on the role of what he called the “transformer.” As Robin Kinross writes, “Neurath developed the notion of transformer to describe the process of analysing, selecting, ordering and then making visual some information, data, ideas, implications.” This process was a detailed one, with the transformer working with stakeholders and subject matter experts, gaining a strong understanding of an issue before building the Isotype pictograms to represent it. Audience was a critical consideration of the language and specifically what symbols would best resonate with a particular group.

When Neurath’s disciple Rudolph Modley took his knowledge of Isotype to the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, he chose not to include the role of transformer. Instead, his goal was to reach as broad an audience as possible. In doing so, he alienated his mentor, as Neurath had used the transformer (in many cases, it was his wife, Marie) to closely monitor the production of his books and posters. His transformer helped ensure the proper message was being communicated. Of course, many have argued that the “closed” nature of Neurath’s system is what led to Isotype’s eventual fading into obscurity. Though next time you look at a handicapped parking space or bathroom gender symbol, you can think of Gerd Arntz.

In the case of Neurath, his work suggests that, rather than trying to create objective work through “faux science” (also from Helfand and Drentell), we embrace the inherent subjectivity of the piece, recognizing that there must be a translation along the way from ideas to visuals. Because remembering that there are embedded ideologies—ones coming from the designer, the client, the data miner or a list of others—in every design is important. What does it say, for instance, that all of the figures mentioned here are white males?[1] Or that most of them started off as statisticians or economists?

As the designers of what’s important (or, more often than not, “true”) in today’s fast-paced, viral world, we have a strong responsibility to tread carefullyalways understanding the foundations upon which our work is built.


[1] The exclusion of Florence Nightingale from this piece is solely based on the fact that she is neither mentioned in Tufte’s work, nor do I consider her to be a guiding figure in the information design field. I do, however, consider her to be extremely important to the world of science and healthcare. It is worth noting that her famous “rose” visualization of causes of death in the Crimean War has been criticized as a rather deceiving (more so, perhaps, than the standard information design).

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