“Study the past if you would define the future.” (Confucius)
It’s January, so why not take a break from the cold and intimidating land of data visualization, and head off to the warm island where traditional pictorial infographics live?
In other words, go straight to Michael Stoll’s flickr account.
Michael is an avid collector of classic infographic books from the last century. As soon as you start looking at these gems, some truths start to emerge. And I’ll start with two:
- 1. We are not the absolute pioneers of information design. Many excellent people have gone before us, and produced work that is stunningly effective by any standards.
- 2. There is a richness to these hand-crafted graphics that sometimes surpasses our work today.
Perhaps you’re thinking that I’m living in the past (or something less kind.) Well, I’m not saying that our present contributions aren’t significant. Far from it. The new forms that are being explored right now could be the most exciting developments our field has ever seen. But an occasional look back at our rich infographic heritage is good for the soul. And it reminds us of all the opportunities that there are to tell a story.
A few examples:
I asked Michael a few questions about his collection:
Why is it important to collect these infographic books?
We’re in a century where people are trying get rid of books, journals, all printed material. Either because the business model doesn’t seem to work any longer, or to protect the environment. The arguments cover a broad spectrum. And although information is travelling faster and reaching more people, we are weakening the “item.” Everything gets cut up into bits and pieces. You can see that everywhere on the internet: facebook, flickr, pinterest …
Instead of being satisfied with a surface impression, I’ve always wanted to explore the whole thing and dig for the deeper thoughts. Concept, design, layout, the multimodal aspects of the presentation. There is nothing like feeling the presence of a book and its history. Digital presentations can disappear with a click of a mouse.They will not get older, or get altered. They are, or they are not.
By collecting infographic books, I also want to show that our discipline has a rich history. The infographic gems are often hidden within these books, atlases, maps and so on. To hunt down these hidden pieces is fun and exciting at the same time.
How (and why) did you start?
Reason one: When I was 10 years old, my grandmother was about to move out of her house. She went to the bookshelf and asked me which book I’d like to have. I instantly chose the biggest one! A vintage atlas with wonderful maps, statistical charts, and astronomical diagrams. There were even zones on the maps labelled “Unknown Area.” I was totally captured by what I often call “the beauty of incompleteness.” Imagine how expensive it was to produce such an atlas, yet it has parts which say “Unknown Area”.
Reason two: While doing an internship in Zurich, Switzerland, I spotted the 1974 book “Graphis Diagrams” by Walter Herdeg. The moment I opened up that book, I knew that there was more to design than text, photography, illustration and layout. I had found my reason to be a designer: To explain things.
And over time, I found friends who truly are interested in what the field of infographics has to offer beyond its surface. So my grandma, that book, and those friends are still fueling my interest.
What can we learn from the books?
First, we can learn that gaining knowledge about us and our environment is a vital interest. You can make a face to your kids, and they instantly will try to imitate you. Of course for fun, but they actually want to know how you did it. Kids also love to climb into and sit in boxes. Also for fun, but mainly to work out their own size in relation to the environment. The latter is a permanent process that goes on throughout one’s whole life. So we need tools and methods to explain stuff, and convey information to gain knowledge. Knowledge that enables a safe, secure, prosperous life.
There is a huge history of infographics. This history is still buried, and since it is costly, time-consuming, and the audience for it is small, you don’t find many “experts” in this field. But there are some, like Michael Friendly, Chris Mullen, Michael Burke, David Rumsey, and Richard Saul Wurman—just to name a few. And, perhaps most interestingly, the history of infographics isn’t bound to print. Right from the beginning of film, there were attempts to explain how a telephone works, or how a photo can be transmitted by wire. As animated infographics! That is as far back as the 1920s. Recently, I got hold of Charles and Ray Eames’ films. Everybody knows “The Powers of Ten,” but that is only the tip of the iceberg. They made fantastic visual explanations of topics like mathematics, and used animated models.
But the core of what we can learn from vintage infographics is the richness of explanatory methods. Sometimes the visualization itself looks dated, but the underlying methods of adapting the display, so that it is understood as intended, are a treasure to learn from.
So if you haven’t explored Michael’s photostream, take a look. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember some of these books when they were first published. But that’s another story.
Michael is a professor at the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences, Department of Design. He teaches media theory and infographics, and is preparing a sequel to his excellent traveling exhibition “History of Infographics.”
John Grimwade is graphics director at Condé Nast Traveler/p>