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Visual communication has been around for centuries — millennia, even, from cave paintings to hieroglyphics to today’s infographics. But how did infographics as we know them take shape? Many forms of infographic and data visualization emerged in the nineteenth century, as print and proliferation techniques developed. These pieces often were used to explore new information or data sets — much like how infographics are used today — and persuade readers of their subject’s impact or importance. Here’s a closer look into some famous infographics and their histories.

The Chronographer of Ancient History
In 1851, Emma Willard published her chronographer, a visualization of ancient history in the form of a temple. In it, she tracks:

  • Centuries
  • Places
  • Empires
  • Important People, defined by role

The temple (a figure of classical perfection) uses depth, labeled columns, and rows on the ceiling and floor to label its figures and events, occasionally employing lines or spot illustrations to add visual emphasis. While at times a bit convoluted or hard to read, the map is innovative for its associations with Willard’s educational goals and its literal depiction of the “memory theater,” a mental technique that aided memorization through placing a subject in a three-dimensional space. Willard’s theater — in this case, one translated to paper — helped students develop associations and link concurrent events by seeing them in a visual way. This piece is one of a few early strides to helping students learn visually as well as by text.

The Diagrammer of Disease
After spending time treating soldiers in a Crimean hospital, Florence Nightingale had seen disease and death first-hand. While war contributed its own challenges, preventable diseases caused many of the deaths of English soldiers. On request from the British government, Nightingale spent years compiling data on soldiers’ disease and death with relation to time, location, and other death causes. Nightingale used a variety of polar area charts and line graphs to communicate her data. While the different visualization methods vary, one thing is consistent throughout: color. Using color to differentiate death or cause of death gave Nightingale the opportunity to more easily capture the data’s impact, as seeing the shapes change between diagrams gave English citizens — new to the art of statistic and data reporting — a way to access and understand the data in a tangible way. Through visual communication, Nightingale was able to target message along with meaning, instigating change in soldiers’ camps that proved the benefits of sanitation.

The Documenter of Race
At the turn of the twentieth century, Paris held its Exposition universelle, or World Fair. Among the exhibits was a collection of photographs and charts exploring the lives of African Americans. WEB DuBois, a prominent scholar and civil rights activist, used the opportunity to present nearly 60 visualizations of African-American population, occupations, economic status — and more — in the post-Civil War United States. He used a plethora of data visualization techniques, including (but not limited to):

  • Pie charts
  • Maps
  • Scatter plots
  • Cartograms
  • Gantt charts

The variety of formats worked in DuBois’s favor. Each piece received a visualization that effectively articulated a data-based snapshot of the lives of African Americans. By presenting “artistic” data to the world, DuBois found a means of communicating with all attendees of the event, no matter their language or country.

Infographics: Attention, Communication, Action
For all of the social change of the 1800s and 1900s, new technologies provided the opportunity to incorporate visual communication and data visualizations to accentuate data and spur readers and communities into taking action and making change. These early forms of infographics served different means in their respective fields, and each carries similarities to best practices in today’s visual (and often digital) media.

How do you see infographics being used to foster change? Tell us here.

Abi Pollokoff

Author Abi Pollokoff

Abi Pollokoff is the Director of Content for Killer Infographics. Originally from the Chicago area, she moved to Seattle in 2014 from New Orleans. With a BA in English, French, and Italian and an MFA in Poetry, she is dedicated to exploring the nuances and possibilities of language. Before joining Killer, Abi spent time as a writing instructor as well as the associate editor at a book-publishing company. These experiences bolster Abi’s work with Killer and enable her to write for diverse audiences, and she strives to apply this perspective to target the unique goals of every Killer project. Abi enjoys developing strong working relationships with clients and creating a human connection through the writing process.

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