Data visualisations have only become popular in the mainstream press over the last few years, and you could be forgiven for thinking that they were a product of the modern computer age.
But one of my favourite blogs, Information is Beautiful (the work of David McCandless, one of those responsible for bringing beautiful visualisations to the mainstream press), last week posted a fascinating selection of data visualisations predating the first computers.
First up are a selection of visualisations describing the black population of Georigia in the 1900s. Below is one of the examples from the Library of Congress in the US. There are many more collected here.
The blog also shows a selection of infographics from the 30s created by Otto Neurath using a format called ISOTYPE – the International System Of TYpographic Picture Education, alongside the icons created for the system by Gerd Arntz . They are on Information is Beautiful here.
McCandless points out that this kind of visualisation to a large extent died out, and has only recently made a come back. He openly wonders whether it is here to stay this time.
It is certainly true that visualisations are becoming increasingly common in the press and it seems like they are becoming a staple for reporting complex data. But there is a danger that this trend could go too far.
Visualisations created to accompany many data stories are produced rapidly, often using computer programs. Yet the approach taken by the pioneers of visualisation working a century ago, and McCandless himself now, is very different. McCandless tends to sketch out his ideas long before transferring them to computer, and off course his forebears were working entirely with physical materials. This took time, and careful consideration.
This is a world away from many of the visualisations created almost as standard to accompany stories in the Guardian. These can be beautiful, and if created on a computer can often offer interactivity that serves to make it even easier to understand a set of data.
Yet they are often nowhere near as arresting as those created by someone with an eye for design and the time to think about an innovative way to present the information. Furthermore, there is a danger that journalists will get carried away because it is so easy to use computers to visually represent data.
Data visualisations are another useful tool in the journalist’s box. But the beauty of those created lovingly and carefully is hard to reproduce rapidly and regularly. Journalists need to be careful not to overload readers so much that they stop looking at infographics, and if possible, take the time to commission them from someone who has the skills and the time to do them well.