Visual is More

unknown artist | Lascaux Cave
unknown artist | Lascaux Cave

If you’re like me, then you may agree that visual communication is more effective than verbal or written. All of course are valuable, but visual has certain advantages. The first known type of this communication comes from our distant ancestors who painted on cave walls thousands of years ago. They left behind scant

evidence to inform us of their lifestyle, however through the efforts of archaeology, these crude drawings help us to understand what they had experienced, what they were witness to, and what they were trying to say.

An infographic is a graphic visualization of information. With this tool, complex data can be represented simply and clearly. We humans have the ability to visually recognize patterns and trends and infographics cater to that ability quite well. Let’s look at a classic one. What you see below is an info graphic from a man named Charles Minard. It’s a cartographic depiction of Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812, clearly not one of his more successful endeavours. It began with his forces leaving the Polish-Russian border heading towards Moscow.

Napolean’s Moscow Campaign | Charles Minard

What’s notable are the different types of data shown on the infographic: the number of Napoleon’s troops, distance travelled, temperature, latitude and longitude, direction of travel, and the location of his forces on specific dates. A French scientist, √Čtienne-Jules Marey, commented on this diagram that it “defies the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence”. Colloquially put, it’s really good. Others consider it to be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.

Jumping ahead a couple of centuries, another example is shown below created by Alicia Korn. Anyone curious to know what countries attended the modern day Olympics since its inception back in 1896 need only make one click. See the full image here.

Olympic Evolution | Alicia Korn

Visually stunning and structurally elegant, this infographic allows our pattern and trend recognition capabilities to easily see how gaps and discontinuities in the rows of countries interestingly coincide with historical events. Namely, both world wars, and the cold war Olympic boycott.

The representation of this information can come in many forms. One may choose this diagram, or a deathly boring two-dimensional table of the exact same data; one column for the Olympic year, and the other column for the list of countries. (yawn)

In 1983 Edward Tufte wrote a book called The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. In it, he outlines certain attributes an infographic should possess such as large sets of data that are coherent, visually compelling to encourage the viewer to compare different pieces of data, and a clear purpose. Tufte says that what infographics do is to condense large amounts of information into a form where it will be more easily absorbed by the reader. One advantage of infographics that he also says, and one I find beautiful in itself, is that it induces the viewer to think about the substance rather than about the methodology, graphic design, or something else.

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