The Daily Heller: Envisioning Data in the 19th Century

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Data viz is a burgeoning practice with an extra-long history. It was arguably ignited in the 20th century at different periods. In the 1920s and '30s, Otto and Marie Neurath's ISOTYPE—promoted by the likes of Rudolf Mosley and Gerd Arnz, among others—helped transform the visual information landscape. Later, Will Burtin and Ladislav Sutnar brought Modernist aesthetics to the fore through diagrams designed for accessibility. In the 1980s and '90s, Edward Tufte reintroduced quantitative information and Richard Saul Wurman coined the term and profession of "information architecture." And let's not forget the work that Nigel Holmes did at TIME magazine to make the general public more aware of just about everything.

Among the leading chroniclers and historians of graphic data methods, RJ Andrews, founder of Info We Trust studio and author of Info We Trust: How to Inspire the World With Data, guest curator of “Data Visualization and the Modern Imagination,” an exhibit about the history of information graphics at Stanford University, has contributed immensely to the heritage of charts, maps and diagrams used to educate, reeducate and enlighten. He is currently series editor for Information Graphic Visionaries: Emma Willard: Maps of History; Florence Nightingale: Mortality and Health Diagrams; and Étienne-Jules Marey: The Graphic Method (La Méthode Graphique), a Kickstarter initiative to raise exposure of these masters of the data illumination.

Throughout history, the creators who defined our current methods of organizing information have been overlooked. Emma Willard created new ways to understand and depict time; her inventions defined chronology for millions of Americans. Florence Nightingale's data stories persuaded royals and generals to adopt health reforms, preventing thousands of needless deaths. Étienne-Jules Marey revealed to the human eye what it cannot naturally see, changing not only science, but cinema and art too. His poetic book, The Graphic Method (La Méthode Graphique), was the first about data graphics and has inspired insiders for over a century. It has never been translated to English, until now.

I asked Andrews to explain the role of these visionaries and their respective impact on the design of information.

All images courtesy of Information Graphic Visionaries.

Your studio name is an interesting double entendre. When and why did you found Info We Trust?Info We Trust’s origins lie at MIT. There, I took a Media Lab class that seduced me to the world of bits. At the same time, I was becoming frustrated with how information was presented on the internet. As humans we crave maps: rich landscapes that give context. But tiny digital screens and their algo-feeds present everything in one-dimensional lists. They’re not very human. I hated it.In 2012, I gave a talk to my classmates that called for better information design. It was the first step into this world.

Emma Willard. Chronographer of American History and detail.

Would you agree that most people are wired to trust information that is presented visually and graphically?

Yes, as information consumers we intuit that graphics require more effort than the written or spoken word. That effort conveys an investment by the creator. The overall effect is the promise of a more trustworthy information artifact.What constitutes credible, what you call, information stories?

The first half of fostering credibility is to create something worthy of trust. Do a good job. The second half is to convey that your work is worthy of trust.Trustworthy design makes a positive first impression. It is correct and accurate. While a typo may be embarrassing, a single misplaced data mark is devastating. It engages the audience’s capabilities and ready knowledge, and employs familiar design conventions where they are expected.Trustworthy design elevates its data sources to the reader’s attention. It is specific in detailing what it can and cannot do. It qualifies its findings. It acknowledges editorial decisions. It anticipates and addresses criticism before it has to be voiced.Trustworthy design is vulnerable. Stand by your work. Put your name on it. Align your own reputation with the work. Remain accountable to it. In lieu of a personal relationship with the audience, the creator must convey their real, long-term commitment to the work itself. An audience will have more trust in the work when they see the creator believes in it.Finally, trustworthy design trusts the audience. Readers are intelligent, but they have not yet experienced what you have to show. Do not talk down to them as you help them see something new.

Florence Nightingale

In this era of facts and alternate facts, is data visualization more or less of a bulwark against misinformation?

A lot of misinformation are true facts that are disingenuously conveyed, told out of context. Data visualization often necessarily provides context. A chart not only shows a single value, but it may also display how it arrived here over time or how it compares to other categories. In this way, context stands against misinformation because it helps relate the importance of messages.Like any communication tool, graphics can be used for ill. Sometimes very powerfully. But I find these cases to be relatively small compared to the warped textual and verbal discourse of today, where it is almost natural to strip facts of their context. At least with data visualization, to manipulate takes a little more effort.

Emma Willard. Perspective Sketch.

Your new series, which launched as a crowdsourced campaign, is welcome, if only because you have introduced three individuals who have not been previously touted for information visualization. What is the principal contribution for each?We chose these three stories because they demanded to be told louder than many others we considered. Emma Willard used graphics to construct a shared vision of what a unified America could
be, for millions of people, at a time when the United States was falling apart into civil war. Her creation of the iconic map of America—a continental landmass without Canada or Mexico—is still a powerful meme today. As part of her effort, Willard also invented a perspective timeline type in the form of a temple. It remains one of the most daring ways of illustrating the human experience of time.Florence Nightingale’s principal contribution is developing the art of persuasive data storytelling. Her graphics adapt rote chart forms that were previously employed for technical analysis and dense reference. Her designs remix these forms with simple comparisons, powerful labels and witty annotations. The result is a set of attention-grabbing diagrams that attracted data-illiterate elites in ways previously impossible. Nightingale achieved one of visualization’s prized goals: clarity.E.J. Marey was the first to understand and explain data visualization in a detailed and comprehensive way. He published 1878’s The Graphic Method just in time to inspire the artform at a critical juncture. In the 1880s, data graphics benefitted from the intersection of exceptional print culture and large investments by data-driven global empires. Today, we sometimes call this a golden age of data visualization. Like other graphic cultures, data visualization was brutalized by the first World War. In many ways, digital data visualization is still in the process of re-summiting the analog peaks that Marey inspired.

Emma Willard. Temple of Time.

Aside from you, has there been a school of scholar/practitioners today, other than Edward Tufte, who have been leaders in the historical study of data?Like the practice of data visualization, its historical study has a long tradition. Significant creators, including Charles-Joseph Minard and Otto Neurath, wrote long design essays that paid tribute to historic inspiration.At the same time that E.J. Marey published his history in 1878’s The Graphic Method, Maurice Block published a paper with a similar theme, albeit with much smaller scope. The post-WWI wave of data visualization textbooks contain histories—the best are by Willard Cope Brinton and Karl G. Karsten. Howard Funkhouser and Helen Walker wrote academic histories of the craft, independently and in collaboration, during the Great Depression.More recently, Michael Friendly’s “Milestones” project is an essential reference. Along with Howard Wainer’s publications, these are the two authors that inspire me most. Their new book, A History of Data Visualization and Graphic Communication, is coming out soon.I’m lucky to count myself as part of a growing cohort obsessed with the history of information graphics that includes David Rumsey, Jason Forrest and Sandra Rendgen.

Étienne-Jules Marey. Direction of shooting stars.

Are there any other visionaries in the pipeline?There's a certain amount of diversity represented in the three-book set. Diversity in geography. Diversity in creator profession. Diversity in craft. Diversity in time.We have a plan to expand this diversity into all kinds of exciting directions with many titles, with a particular focus on bringing more non-English language creators to notice. Our roadmap has two dozen titles on it, but for today, we are totally focused on making these three volumes.

Florence Nightingale

Data viz has grown exponentially as a graphic design tool. Why, do you think? Has the digital age triggered a new information age? Are consumers of information grown? Has a need for analyzing data become more essential? Obviously, your books show that data visualization is not a new phenomenon, but how has it evolved into a 21st-century language?

The language of data visualization has remained remarkably stable into the 21st century. Sure, we’ve had experimentation at the margins with novel chart forms. And there’s been some really magical interactive implementations of our language. But the same encoding metaphors that have helped us convey data for over a century are still foundational.The big changes haven’t been with the medium. The big changes have been with the message and the audience. First, digital data has not just given us more data, it’s given many more kinds of data. There are many more interesting data stories to tell today because there is a great variety of data today. Second, the audience for data stories is much larger and much more data literate than ever before. In addition to a more data-driven society, people have also been trained by repeated exposure to office dashboards and newspaper data journalism. As a data storyteller, we can get more weird, more specific, faster—because the audience is now ready to fly with us.We are still in the midst of a powerful transition. Like the past information revolutions, it’s going to be a little crazy, beautiful in new ways, and very exciting.

(Go to Kickstarter page here)