Following the tradition

Infographics are omnipresent in times of the Corona pandemic. They translate complex information and data into images and make topics such as the spread of the virus, case numbers etc. accessible to the public. The topic of disease and its course and mortality has always been of great relevance in the history of infographics. In this first essay on infographics, some historical examples are presented and acknowledged – as a prelude to a series dedicated to contemporary infographics and their current challenges and possibilities.

John Snow (1813–1858) was a British physician and a pioneer in the epidemiological study of cholera. Around 1854 he was able to prove that the cholera epidemic in London was caused by contaminated drinking water. The deaths recorded on a map showed a concentration in the area of a water pump in Broad Street. After he put this pump out of operation, the epidemic came to a halt. The Snowmap, named after him, is considered one of the first spatial analyses of an outbreak of disease. (This infographic is also presented in the blog post Plague Inc. – Designing Virtual Pandemics by Arno Görgen)

Variant of a map drawn in the original by John Snow; unknown source

Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) was a British nurse and statistician and can be considered a founder of modern Western nursing. In her Polar Area Diagram she presented the causes of death during the Crimean War (1853-1856). The visualization shows in an impressive way that – due to a lack of hygiene – infectious diseases accounted for the majority of mortality. With its great influence, it was able to exert political pressure to reform the British health care system in the long term.

Polar area diagram: blue-grey: people who died of infectious diseases, red: people who died of wounds, black: other causes of death; Source: Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army, 1858

Charles Joseph Minard (1781–1870) was a French civil engineer who made significant contributions to the development of infographics. His best-known work is the visualization published in 1869 of Napoleon’s devastating Russian campaign of 1812/1813, which Edward Tufte described as “probably the best infographics of all time”, using multivariable data to tell a complex and coherent story. The variables represent the size of the army (loss of soldiers), its geographical location (troop movements) and the temperatures during Napoleon’s Russian campaign. It represents one of the foundations of today’s map representations over time. (More in-depth studies of the map can be found on the website of Edward Tufte, among others)

Minard’s visualization of the Russian campaign, lithograph 62 x 30 cm, 1869

Fritz Kahn (1888–1968) was a doctor from Berlin and a popular science author who illustrated the construction and functioning of the human body in a unique way. His main work “Das Leben des Menschen” (1922–1931) fascinated not only laypeople but also scientists with its visual analogies and metaphors, which were extraordinarily expressive and contemporary. Kahn’s intention was to present scientific facts vividly through the panels, while being aware of the tension between scientificity and comprehensibility. Kahn’s focus was on conveying the understanding of complex facts rather than the absolute scientific truth. His pictures and display boards are still convincing and surprising today, especially his visual metaphor “Der Mensch als Industriepalast”.

Detail of the teaching board «Der Mensch als Industriepalast», 1926, © Kosmos Verlag

Marie Neurath (1898–1986) was a German illustrator. The name Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) is usually associated with Otto Neurath – her husband – and Gerd Arntz, but it was Marie Neurath in particular who was responsible for the contemporary and current popularity of sign language. Isotype, an early form of infographics, was developed to make scientific contexts understandable to the layman. This image pedagogy is based on an encyclopedia of pictograms and still inspires many designers* today, such as the agency Integral Ruedi Baur, which developed the visual language of the contemporary European art biennial Manifesta 11 in Zurich.

Leprosy, poster, 1955, Isotype Collection, University of Reading

Philippe Rekacewicz (*1960) is a French cartographer and journalist who publishes regularly in Le Monde diplomatique and in the Atlas der Globalisierung. His hand-drawn political and economic-geographical maps deal with the topics of migration, flight and resettlement as well as health policy aspects. The socio-cartographic work shows the relationship between cartography, art and politics and explores the questions of how art contributes to the creation of maps or how maps can be used and misused for political and propaganda purposes. The map “Mourir aux portes de l’Europe” documents the position of the old continent in the face of migration, particularly on the basis of mortality figures.

Mourir aux portes de l’Europe, 2013

Prof. Dr. Dirk Brockmann (*1969) is a theoretical physicist and complexity researcher at the Humboldt University Berlin. He and his project group have presented a mathematical theory that should improve our understanding of global disease propagation. The spread of a computer-simulated epidemic originating in Hong Kong was shown in two different visualizations. No pattern can be seen in the geographical representation. However, if the apparently erratic spread is represented as a function of an “effective distance” (travel flows of the air traffic network), a wave-like behaviour appears.

Wave-shaped propagation of a simulated disease in two different visualizations
Source: Dirk Brockmann, Humboldt University Berlin, 2013

Outlook

In the time of the corona crisis, infographics are booming. They help making the complex relations visible “at a glance” and structural connections comprehensible – by means of static visualizations as well as interactive, often real-time diagrams, maps and simulations. The website Coronavirus Tech Handbook – Infographics lists an  extensive collection of current infographics, arranged by topic.

Infographics continue to evolve. The requirements and complexity are increasing, so that data journalism and storytelling are becoming more and more important. It will be interesting to see whether the additional technical possibilities will improve the quality and legibility of the infographics to this extent.

After this historical introduction, we will examine and comment on various perspectives and positions of contemporary infographics on the Corona pandemic in the coming weeks.

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Jimmy Schmid

Prof. Jimmy Schmid is a professor of Communication Design, head of the MAS studies Signaletics - Environmental Communication Design and senior researcher at the Bern University of the Arts (HKB).

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