Infographics Are Older Than You Think

Infographics are everywhere these days, and they have been tinkling designers pink since they started sprouting all over the place; but they have been around longer than you probably thought. 

Online, in print, on television, and even at the movies, complex information is being presented in clear, and sometimes not so, graphical formats that truly engage media consumers. In the 21st century, information graphics and visualizations are seemingly becoming destined to be the preferred method of conveying important, highly statistical knowledge.

“To remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate figures.”

The use of charts, maps, tables, drawings, graphs, diagrams, schematics, colors, and other graphic devices to represent information isn’t new by any means—cave paintings from prehistoric times and ancient nautical charts are perfect examples of humans’ innate desire to distill complex information and present it in a way that is concise and attractive, without sacrificing the importance of communication.

Information graphics, in fact, predate ancient writing systems. The Egyptian hieroglyphs found in the pyramids are a clever combination of logograms, writing and graphic representations, that proved extremely effective in telling the story behind  ancient Egyptian civilization.

Those old staples of data visualization, such as the pie chart, line graph, area chart, or bar chart, were introduced by a Scottish political economist and master statistician William Playfair in 1786. French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard mastered the use of information graphics with an astonishing two-dimensional flowchart that illustrated the ill-fated Napoleonic Russian campaign of 1812. The chart has astonished historians and scholars reveal the powerful impact of brevity and clarity given by Minard’s flowchart. However, lengthy history books on the Napoleonic Wars failed to describe the catastrophic Russian campaign with the effectiveness of a single flowchart.

Style is at the heart of information graphics and the early 20th century saw an emergence of pictograms, an effective method of communication in pictorial form. Isotype, a pictorial language which was developed in Vienna, Austria, before World War II, emphasized simplicity and lived by the motto that, “To remember simplified pictures is better than to forget accurate figures.” The goal was to transmit ideas, while effectively using pictograms, that were both simple and attractive. The graphic representations shown these days on road signs, informational pamphlets, computer desktop iconography, and newspapers materialized from the Isotype language.

The Information Age has given preference to online infographics because of their ability to capture viewers’ attention and transmit meaningful information in a clear and organized fashion—abundance of text can be tiresome to read on mobile devices. On the other hand, graphics can be easily scaled, which make infographics perfect for smartphones. Informational graphics also have the advantage of being understood by readers of all ages, something that text-heavy content is not able to easily accomplish.