The Daily Heller: Three Visionaries of Nascent Data Viz Revealed

Posted inThe Daily Heller

San Francisco’s Visionary Press is the visionary concept of RJ Andrews, author and founder of Info We Trust, and editor of the Information Graphic Visionaries book series.

The series’ first volumes feature three surprise heroes: Étienne-Jules Marey, who changed not only science, but cinema and art too; his poetic book La Méthode Graphique raised the standard of the data viz form. Florence Nightingale, not simply (if such a thing can be called simple) a legendary battlefield nurse, but a keen statistician whose colorful diagrams helped persuade royals and generals to adopt reforms. And Emma Willard, whose inventions defined chronology for millions of Americans through her maps of history.

The series is skillfully designed by Lorenzo Fanton, making vintage material seem timeless—and it is a must-have collection for information framers and users.

In this interview Andrews discusses how and why he selected these three subjects, the impact of their work in the world of data collection, and what’s ahead for the indie press.

This series is a tour de force. First, how did the concept for it evolve?
The concept is rooted in my excitement for print information graphics. As a working information designer, I look to old charts to see how my professional ancestors solved information problems. Even better, their solutions are often beautiful, too. As my friend David Rumsey would say: They make my brain happy.

We are in a special moment for information graphics. The public is thirsty for ways to better navigate confusing phenomena—from elections to outbreaks. Media obliges, assisted by an explosion of data and ever-blossoming field of digital tools.

A crop of colorful coffee-table books on information graphics was published across the last decade by a bunch of my peers. They told me that we are ready to take it to the next level: It is time to celebrate and scrutinize data graphics in the same way that other fields enjoy—fields like fine art, sports, science, and military history.

There are information graphic masterpieces and it’s time they command the attention they deserve.

To do that we needed deeper research, better photography and more beautiful books. Critically, we needed to write more than simple short captions. We needed to expand beyond the captions of coffee table books. We needed rich essays that go beyond the what to explain the who, why, and how, too.

I’m obsessed with craft. To me, the most fascinating thing is to understand the story behind how something came to be.

With all this energy and glee I was lucky enough to meet designer Lorenzo Fanton. I seduced him to the concept, and his brilliant work helped translate my ideas and enthusiasm to book. He is particularly responsible for creating our series’ cover system and the interiors’ duotone/four-color split. In the first half of each volume, duotone creates a coherent mass and elevates the text. In the latter half of each volume, the text becomes secondary in its support of the four-color graphics.

Then, a cast of expert contributors—the No. 1 authorities on these subjects—joined the project, too. Without editor Susan Schulten, for example, it would be impossible to produce a book on Emma Willard. I wouldn’t have tried.

Finally, many readers believed in the project and committed their funds to help make production possible.

Design and production took years. But that afforded us the time to source all of the rare archival materials from dozens of libraries around the world.

Emma Willard, Temple of Time, a large-scale teaching tool, 1846. This Temple, shown in full color, remained one of her proudest achievements.
Charles-Joseph Minard, “Carte figurative … l’armée française dans la campagne de Russie, 1812–1813” (Hannibal’s March Over the Alps and Napoleon’s Russian Campaign). Paris, 1869. Photograph courtesy of the École nationale des ponts et chaussées.
Florence Nightingale, Diagrams from Mortality of the British Army.

I had never heard of Emma Willard or Étienne-Jules Marey before. And Florence Nightingale was merely a legendary historical figure. Why are they your first three subjects?
Yes, each story is curiously absent from public knowledge—a function twists of history. Emma Willard’s spectacular early American graphics were (sometimes literally) lost in the wake of the Civil War and early modernity. Florence Nightingale published her persuasive diagrams anonymously. She let her famous nursing image outshine her other work. Her entire graphics story was buried in manuscript archives. Étienne-Jules Marey has been the go-to reference for insiders like me for a century. But only to insiders, because his Graphic Method has never been translated to English.

These are the three stories that deserve to be told more than any other. They each offered large gaps between the Visionary’s stunning contributions, and modern appreciation for them.

Most new ventures fail. I chose these three not knowing if I would get to do more volumes. These first three were the ones I wanted most.

In 1849, Emma Willard confidently issued another temple of time, this time to teach English history. The dramatic use of color and visual perspective underscores her commitment to graphic modes of learning.

What in each life was the epic or iconic work?
Emma Willard’s Temple of Time, a stunning visual metaphor for the blind march of history in the future. Nightingale’s second batch of diagrams, a three-act data story about the importance of sanitary reform. Marey’s epic contribution was the development of chronophotography: extraordinary scientific experiments with early cameras that inspired motion pictures, powered flight and modern art.

Florence Nightingale, “Diagram representing the relative Annual Mortality,” proof edit, c. 1862, BL Add MS 59786/6. Photograph courtesy of British Library Imaging Services.
Marey popularized this “Planetary Dromograph Calendar for 1849” by Lévy and Lewandowski that forecasted when celestial bodies would appear on the horizon from Paris during 1849. Photograph courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

What is the mandate for Visionary Press?
On our dust jacket we describe: “Information Graphic Visionaries is a book series celebrating spectacular data visualization creators with original research, new writing and beautiful visual catalogs.”

The immediate mandate for Visionary Press is to make our Visionaries series successful. (See our books at!) We printed a bunch and are shipping worldwide.

In the medium term, we look forward to exploring how to reclaim some of the glory of printed information graphics. Along the way, our aspiration is to help us figure out how printed matter can matter more.

Emma Willard, “Historic Chart and Sketch of the Course of Empire,” after 1851, student manuscript map, 32 × 42 cm. Photograph courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries.
Charles-Joseph Minard, detail of “Tableau figuratif du mouvement commercial du Canal du Centre en 1844” (Commercial Traffic on the Canal du Centre in 1844). 1845.
Florence Nightingale, Diagrams from Mortality of the British Army, 1855.

Let’s talk a bit about what your three protagonists contributed to information design. How would you describe each one in terms of influence and impact?
If you close your eyes and think of America you might think of a continental shape stretching from the Atlatnic to the Pacific. Emma Willard’s graphics helped establish that aspirational meme of America—a land of opportunity from sea to shining sea—a vision that persists to today. Her graphic histories of America were the first of their kind. She sold over a million textbooks and was an early force for educating young women. Some of her work was copied, and rippled down for decades. But her most daring graphic feats were too sophisticated to be imitated and disappeared from public knowledge.

Florence Nightingale’s persuasive diagrams were at the heart of the sanitary movement, one of three technological revolutions credited with saving over a billion lives. I liken her graphics to the success of charts like the slave-ship diagram used by the British abolition movement, or the shaded maps used by American suffragettes. Nightingale used graphics to persuade influential people to social progress.

Marey wrote the first illustrated explainer about data visualization. His text showed dozens of examples, establishing the first critical catalog of historic work. He gave data graphics our first history—a sense of time, place, momentum and meaning.

The design of each volume is splendid. I hadn’t realized the scale of the volumes—there is a quality the reminds me a little of Tufte’s books. Was there a nod in his direction?
Thank you. Series designer Lorenzo Fanton elevated our design in ways I was unable to imagine. Early on we analyzed many designs, including Tufte’s.

Today, books have to fight to exist. Books have to fight to not be a PDF. I want to make books that deserve to be real, to be alive.

Information designers have a proud tradition of being frustrated with typical publishing and blowing lots of money making books the way we think they should be made. Many of these self-published (and often self-financed) works are now cherished icons. This history encouraged me to dare to make beautiful books.

Edward Tufte is the most familiar example of this phenomenon. Before him, the most significant belligerent was Willard Brinton, whose 1914 book is a classic and 1939 self-published book, Graphic Presentation, is a masterpiece.

My goal is to build a system that allows me to make beautiful books with experts and artisans I enjoy working with. I am proud that, from the start, I’ve been able to share this joy with many contributors.

I am assuming there are more to come. Am I wrong?
There are many stories to tell and graphics to show. We have a roadmap through many titles.
We are lucky to launch with three titles. They create a vibrant landscape for us to play on. They feature different time periods, creator profiles, geographies, graphic types, languages, etc. My ambition for the next titles in the series is to push our boundaries further. We are going to dive into more exotic craft and see how all kinds of remarkable people did great things with data graphics.

Given the quality of these books, is Visionary Press a sustainable model?
Visionary Press will expand to a range of publication formats. (Right now, we also have some print information graphics in addition to the Visionaries books.) I’m excited to figure out what a $40 book offering from us looks like.

All that said, things are weird right now. The global supply chain crisis is real. Since fundraising this project: Paper costs doubled. Shipping costs quadrupled. The situation highlights the burden of relying on overseas for high-quality production. (Our books were beautifully produced in Italy.)

What do you have in store? Other visionaries of information? Or simply other visionaries?
We’re working hard right now to get Visionaries delivered to nearly every state and over 40 countries. What a start!

Behind the scenes, I have a roadmap through a couple dozen potential titles related to maps, diagrams and charts. To become real, a title must have: 1) spectacular graphics; 2) a fascinating story; 3) expert contributors who can help relate it all to today’s reader. That’s the concept: It’s not a photo book. It’s not a wall of text. It’s the integration that’s interesting. That’s information graphics!

I love information graphics because each one contains a hopeful aspiration of shared understanding. In that spirit, I believe we are all visionaries when we see a little bit better, together.