We’ve all seen infographics – those large, colorful web graphics jammed full of statistics, factoids, graphs and charts. But have you ever stopped to think about just where the idea of infographics came from? No, they aren’t an invention of the internet. In fact, infographics are so old that they predate the very words used to describe them. Come with us as we take a walk through the history of infographics.
In the Beginning…
As far back as we can look in human history, there have been infographics, or something very much like them. In the Stone Age, hunter-gatherers painted images of animals on cave walls, and many scholars believe that at least some of them were infographics about how and where to hunt the best animals. Much late, early human civilizations like those of Egypt and Mesopotamia covered the walls of their temples and tombs with infographics depicting facts and stories about the gods, their kings, and the rituals needed to secure a satisfactory afterlife.
Egyptian hieroglyphics were basically the infographics of their day, combining pictures and symbolic expressions to communicate complex ideas graphically.
If we move ahead in history, we find that the graphical display of storytelling occurs in Classical art as well. The famous frieze on the Parthenon used sculpted forms to visually depict the story of the festival of Athena, while Trajan’s Column in Rome gave dynamic visual display of the Dacian War from start to finish.
However, it was only in the eighteenth century that the modern infographic was born.
Infographics in Print
In 1786, William Playfair published an atlas in which he displayed statistical information graphically. This was a major step forward in the evolution of the infographic. A few years later, Playfair invented the pie chart, later a staple of infographics. The use of graphical displays for displaying statistical information took another major step forward in 1857 when the famous nurse Florence Nightingale used bar graphs and pie charts to convince Queen Victoria to increase funding for military hospital services. The key moment was the chart she created showing the high percentage of deaths that could have been prevented with better resources, relative to the much smaller number of deaths from combat injuries.
The stylized maps used for rapid transit systems such as the London Tube also helped to influence the conception of what could be depicted in graphic form, but it was the work of Edward Tufte in the 1970s and 1980s that really set the stage for what would become infographics. He laid out core principles that helped to shape how we think about graphics.
With the advent of modern computing, graphical information moved to a new destination, the computer. The earliest operating systems allowed only for text-based information, but with the rise of graphical interfaces such as the Mac and Windows operating system, users began to expect to see information displayed graphically. With the rise of the internet, this expectation migrated from CD-ROMs and system performance metrics to the whole range of historical, cultural, and scientific data. The key moment in the transition was the widespread adoption of broadband. Once it became economical and efficient to download large graphical files in a reasonable amount of time, it became effective to produce large graphics with a wealth of information.
But while we are all familiar with the viral infographics that appear on today’s internet, there is a surprising new future in store for the infographic. Futurists contend that soon infographics will be transported to virtual reality, where they can be engaged with in three dimensions. Whether this is through full VR in a computer-generated environment or augmented reality where graphics are superimposed on the real world, the future holds an exciting new way to visualize data.
From the earliest days of human artistic expression to the future where man and machine merge, the infographic has helped us to visualize and make use of data.
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