The Infographic Forefather (1842)

Posted: November 12th, 2012 | Author: Manuel Lima | Filed under: Uncategorized |

In November 2011, I wrote a post on the recent and astonishing popularity of these long graphical strips, commonly known as infographics. In the same post I showed 42 samples that people submitted to Visual Complexity over the period of roughly a year (see sample below).

It’s particularly interesting to recall that less than four years ago the term infographic used to cover any type of chart, graph, diagram, histogram, table or illustration conveying a specific data attribute. We called it simply, an information graphic. But over the past few years, the expression has become closely associated with a long vertical table encompassing a variety of graphical elements, such as maps, uncanny clip art, miscellaneous charts, large text and bulky numbers. This association is currently so strong that it seems almost impossible to keep the two concepts apart. Consequently, the recent outburst of popularity of infographics has caused the emergence of various companies dedicated almost exclusively to the production of this type of graphic for private clients, institutions, blogs, and mainstream media; making it arguably one the strongest economic forces within the information design landscape.

But as with many other types of contemporary graphics, the idea in itself is not entirely novel. The papyrus roll from Ancient Egypt, the direct ancestor of the modern book, is conceivably also the ancient forefather of modern infographics. Consisting of papyrus sheets pasted edge to edge with a slight overlap, the text and graphics was set out in columns, and drawn up at right angles to the edge of the rolls. Even though most papyrus were meant to be read from left to right, unrolling them as the reader went along, some also explored a vertical top-down linear narrative. This concept was further propelled across Middle Age Europe, where scholars were at loss trying to integrate all the new knowledge coming from the ancient world, and biblical exegesis was evolving from a simple allegorical division to a complex analytical process. During this stage we can witness a variety of parchment scrolls employing a diagrammatic representation of  biblical tales, family trees, systems of law, knowledge maps, amongst many other topics. On the left we can see two compelling medieval specimens. The first on the left is a small part of a remarkable genealogy of Christ from circa 1130-1205, while the second is a depiction of the genealogical tree of the House of Habsburg, circa 1540.

But out of all the cases I’ve seen in the past, the chart below is perhaps one of the best examples of a prototypical infographic and a strong progenitor of such a concept, abundantly explored in the last few years. This 19th century piece is showcased in the magnificent book The Cartographies of Time, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2010.

Printed by Joshua Himes in 1842, A Chronological Chart of the Visions of Daniel and John, integrates the visual logic of the timeline, chronological calculus and apocalyptic symbolism in a single scheme. The final date in the left-hand column, 1843, indicates the coming of the end of the world. As BibliOdyssey explains in a post: “This infographic is based on the religious revivalist predictions of the New England minister, William Miller. From the 1830s, Miller’s followers produced stirring books, pamphlets, broadsides and innovative graphics to spread the word of the coming apocalypse, often displayed and distributed at popular camp meetings.”

The resemblance with modern-day infographics is primarily based on three features: (1) The portrayal of a specific story or topic in a long top-down graphical layout. (2) The use of specific illustrations or clip art (in the case of present-day versions) with complementary text to better elucidate the various components of the subject. (3) The inclusion of large numbers to convey specific quantities pertaining to the analyzed topic.

Here’s a comparison of the 1834 chart next to two modern infographic approaches:

3 Comments on “The Infographic Forefather (1842)”

  1. 1 Jeremy Britton said at 6:57 pm on November 12th, 2012:

    I love how you placed this recent trend in context. It would great to hear more about why you imagine these examples line up so closely. Surely the people behind \"Burglary By Numbers\" were not referencing William Miller. What is it about the visual language that makes it so persistently compelling?

    Two common contexts that might be interesting to consider are: 1) the coincidence of form–paper scrolls creating a similar constraints to scrolling web pages; 2) the strong desire to foretell the future in image-number pairs. A religious apocalypse contrasts nicely with the anxiety about falling behind various technological apocalypses for your business.

    Thanks for returning to the topic!

  2. 2 Manuel Lima said at 10:15 pm on November 12th, 2012:

    Thanks Jeremy! Here are some additional thoughts, respecting the list of three common features listed above:

    (1) The use of a long table for depicting various graphical components relies simply on the revival of old metaphors that are so hard to relinquish, such as papyrus, parchment scrolls, posters, or pages. The driving force behind this is similar to the one propelling skeuomorphism, and other types of GUI controls and visual indicators, which rely far too much on reenacting old metaphors instead of fully embracing the new digital paradigm.

    (2) The use of illustrations, or more recently clip art, with complementary text is a millenary mnemonic technique in visual communication, and one that will certainly continue to flourish well into the future.

    (3) The use of large, bulky numbers to express specific quantities pertaining to the analyzed topic is perhaps the most distinct and unique feature of the three. This is perhaps due to a recent over-emphasis on data and quantification, as a key measure of precision and reliability. If you’re confident enough to show such a large number, it must be accurate and trustworthy. It’s also more appealing, graspable, and ultimately a major driver of eyeballs.

  3. 3 Robert Rounthwaite said at 8:58 pm on November 14th, 2012:

    Wow – nice connection here; I like seeing the thread of the past linking up to the present. Those are some amazing examples! (wish they were higher res —
    Although I generally agree about the reasons for their appeal, I don’t think that the increasing popularity of these infographics is essentially a revival of old metaphors. Although I certainly do see them as an echo of a poster, they seem also a cry out against the lack of vertical visual space available on the typical screen. In addition I think they have 3 appealing characteristics that combine to enhance their spread
    - They are easily put together in a way that looks “stylish,” even when poorly designed for communicating – the vertical flow gives a natural narrative structure while also allowing for designers to avoid planning for vertical breaks.
    - Because they are lengthy, they often avoid the main (IMO) flaw in junky charts: lacking useful content. It’s seems to me there’s much more likely to be some meaty information in one of these infographics than in one of the ones sprinkled through a typical news story.
    - They are a singular object. In today’s distraction-filled world, it is easy to stop after the first “chunk” of something is consumed and move on. By being one cohesive whole, they encourage people to at least scan the whole thing – increasing the time people spend with them, and thus, their impact.
    I’m open to these points being misconceptions on my part; perhaps I’ve only seen the “best” ones…although I’ve certainly seen some pretty poorly designed examples. Perhaps you are comparing them to some other baseline. In any case, you’ve certainly seen more of them than I!
    In any case, this is a digressive disagreement; thanks so much for the informative post! (p.s. I enjoyed your book and kept it near my desk as a productive distraction for many months.)

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