Roundtable

Instead of Writing a Thousand Words, Part One

The visual expression of ideas from cave paintings to emoji.

By Elizabeth Della Zazzera

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

This is the first in a three-part series on the history of the infographic. This part, on the visual expression of ideas, will be followed by part two, on maps and other depictions of space, and part three, on charts, graphs, and the visualization of data.

Although Éric de Grolier, the so-called Father of Information Systems in France, coined the term infographic in 1979, the history of the graphical representation of information stretches back much further. The history of the visualization of information is intrinsically tied to the history of human cognition, of technology, and of art and design. Human beings have used visuals for so many things: to communicate ideas and stories; to represent space, time, and the cosmos; to extrapolate and compare sets of data; to show connections and disparities; to teach complex concepts or succinctly display information. Visualizations—maps, diagrams, graphs—make arguments for how we should understand the world, and thereby teach us how to understand, organize, and make sense of complicated reality. These simplified versions of the world allow us to see things that are usually unseen: the borders between political jurisdictions, the hierarchy of an organization, or the relationship between the mortal plane and the afterlife.

A map of a dry riverbed in Egypt illuminates ancient Egyptian mining practices and a chart listing the causes of death in the Crimean War represents an important moment in the professionalization of nursing. A 1931 diagram of the London underground system makes it clear why subway maps all over the world look more or less the same. And taken as a whole, the incredible richness and variety of these visuals—in concept, content, and execution—draws a picture of human culture that is profoundly visual. These graphics also show us the human tendency to take ideas or theories and turn them into visual certainties: to erase doubt, complexity, or fuzziness, with decisive lines and shapes.