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The Evolution of the Infographic

Infographics seem to be popping up everywhere you look today. It’s a buzzword that gets used in our industry more and more frequently. Let’s take a look at what they are, where they were first spotted, why they are so popular and what the future holds for the infographic.

What is an infographic?

Infographic. Data visualization. Information design. You’ve probably heard these words being used interchangeably. In truth, there is a great deal of overlap, but for the purposes of this post we will define an infographic as a visual narrative that presents complex information and data in a clear and digestible way.

A short history

The first infographic popped up in a Google search around 30,000 BC. Ok, maybe not. But even though most people come across infographics on the web today, their humble origins can actually be traced back to early cave paintings. Early infographics can also be seen in Egyptian hieroglyphs, depicting ideas around work, everyday life and religion. Here are some other key dates that have shaped the course of infographic emergence.

30,000

 
Some of the very first infographics were painted on the walls of caves in what is now modern-day Spain and France. Images of horses and other animals are thought to be intended to convey information about hunting and obtaining food.
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1786

 
William Playfair, an early innovator in Statistical Graphics published The Commercial and Political Atlas, which displayed many bar charts, line graphs and histograms representing the economy in England.

1857

 
English nurse Florence Nightingale changed history by using infographics to persuade Queen Victoria to improve conditions in military hospitals. Her chart showed the number and causes of deaths during each month of the Crimean War.

1871

 

©Olga Popova
Dimitri Mendeleev creates the periodic table of elements, a visualization that fundamentally changed how science is understood and how it's taught.

1931

 
Harry Beck created the first map of the London Tube showing only lines to depict public transit routes and stations. This was an important development, since it moved visual diagrams into everyday life.

1972

 
Astronomers Carl Sagan and Frank Drake designed The Pioneer Plaque that was launched into space with the Pioneer 10 probe. It was perhaps the first infographic intended to be understood by non-human beings.

1975

 
The father of data visualization, Edward Tufte, developed a seminar at Princeton University on statistical graphics with John Tukey. Tufte self-published Visual Display soon after, establishing himself as an infographics expert.

1992

 
The advent of charts in Microsoft Office software, particularly Excel and PowerPoint. Easy-to-use data visualization tools led to a proliferation of infographics.

Present day

 
Interactive infographics are becoming more popular as they allow users to interact with the data. They tend to have much more data than static infographics and the interactivity allows users to explore the dataset for themselves. Sometimes users can enter their own data to personalize the visualization.

Why are infographics so popular now?

As more data emerges in the world, infographics are being used more than ever to help people understand and break down complex ideas. It can be difficult to absorb dry and esoteric data, but a good infographic can transform this information into something that is digestible for a general audience. The human brain processes 90% of information it receives visually, so it’s no wonder we are drawn to infographics in this current age of information overload. Visual information captures our attention far better than written text.

What lies ahead for infographics?

The future certainly looks bright for infographics, but how will they evolve in the years to come? In the recent past, we have seen more and more interactive infographics used in editorial content (think nytimes.com). This trend seems ripe with opportunity given the ever-growing adoption of devices like the iPad and iPhone where HTML5 can be used to bring interactive infographics to life. Another exciting area with lots of potential is the use of real time data in infographics. Trending topics and social analytics are just two examples of data that are well suited for real time visual representation in infographics.

Fastco.Design states “the data boom and growing need to display complex concepts simply ensure that these opportunities for graphic visualizations will be plentiful in the years to come.”

Categories: Visual Design
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