Introduction for the Malofiej Information Graphics Summit Book
Introduction to the Malofiej Information Graphics Summit Book, 2002
Some graphic historians make a place for Information Graphics on a small branch of a huge tree that’s labelled “Art and Design.” Others might go so far as to make Information Graphics one of the roots of the arts’ family tree, because the earliest known art–the 30,000-year-old cave paintings in Chauvet, France–could probably lay better claim to being the first information graphics than the first “art.” (Arguments are not resolved about the purpose of much cave art, but I’d go for something like: “these are the animals we need to kill” rather than: “I think I’ll spend some time drawing animals just for the sake of art.”
But Information Graphics did not become a deliberate field of work until much later. There are maps from 4,000 years ago, and there are plenty of examples of scientists’ graphic notations of their inventions and experiments (and Leonardo did some pretty good diagrams, too.)
However, it was at the end of the 18th century that science and art really got together to deliberately produce graphics that informed. When it comes to statistics, it can almost be pinned to one date–1786–and the publication of William Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas. In the 1920s, Otto Neurath developed his system of education through pictorial symbols, and laid the foundation for today’s representations of statistics.
During the Second World War, with photographic reporting possible but not easily available (at least not quickly available enough for the appetite of newspapers and magazines), Information Graphics became important in explaining world events on a daily or weekly basis. (Remember, it took 4 days for news of the first successful ascent of Mount Everest to reach the West, and that was as late as 1951.)
It took two other wars, first in the Falklands and then in the Gulf, to push Information Graphics to the next level. Both times the reason was a government’s refusal to allow photographers at the war front, and both times there was some over-reaction on the part of editors, art directors and the information designers themselves. Graphics departments were asked to fill large spaces with images that an otherwise visually-starved readership expected. Along with the expanded new role for information graphics came a new tool: the ability to render in 3-D.
In the last decade, the quality of Information Graphics has been mixed. Unfortunately, fashion dictates trends as much in this field as in others. Just as some of the newspaper and magazine graphics of the 80s seemed to be more entertainment than information, now some information graphics seem to be a platform to render the shiny exterior of an airplane, or to mimic (or use) photographic effects such as fire and smoke–effects that sometimes put Understanding in the background. This trend has a parallel in animated cartoons, which went from being simple flat colors to the pseudo-realistic surfaces of films such as Toy Story or Shrek. Not all flat graphics are good, and neither are all highly-rendered ones bad. It depends on the artist, of course, and always has. It comes back to the person thinking about the point to be made the information graphic.
As long as information designers remember the real reason they are employed–to make facts, processes and numbers understandable–then the future of this field is safe, whatever graphic means are used. But if we are seduced by and overdo the latest trend, we will be marginalized as an unnecessary, and therefore expendable part of journalism.
In the summer of 1965, I worked at the London Sunday Times with the weekend Magazine’s art director, Brain Haynes. Squeezed into a tiny closet (really!) on the same floor was Peter Sullivan, a large, gruff man with red hair and a temper to match. Peter came to the office on Friday and Saturday and worked furiously making maps, diagrams and charts to go into Sunday’s paper, and then crashed at his mother’s place before driving 200 miles back to Hull to teach a graphics course at the art school there. Every Thursday night he’d drive back to London and do it all over again.
That summer Peter (and Brian) taught me more about this business than I learned during the whole of my four years at Hull (by coincidence, the same art school where Peter was later a teacher), and the subsequent 3 years at the Royal College of Art in London. Peter showed me that drawing a car or a house could be thought of in the same way as drawing a bar chart or a pie chart. He gave me permission to use a ruler to draw straight lines, and assured me that it wasn’t cheating! He told me about a new range of colored stick-on films that meant you didn’t have to take forever painting an area of perfectly flat color in your diagram. He invited me to work with him on a huge project about Buckingham Palace, which detailed the Queen of England’s staff, and he showed me how to go about doing it. What he so generously gave me were magical revelations to an illustration student whose actual teachers valued the evident marks of the human hand in finished work. By example, Peter, you were a really great teacher, and thank you for sharing your secrets.