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History of Infographics

On a previous page in this section, we’ve defined an infographic as a visual representation of information, data, or knowledge, and we pointed out that they’re becoming more and more prevalent on the web.

But the history of infographics predates the web by, oh, about 32,000 years. Cave paintings from 30,000 BC could easily be called the first infographics, depicting animals and other resources in the surrounding area. As visual representations of data, they’re definitely infographics.

The same can be said for Egyptian hieroglyphics. Around 3000 BC, ancient Egyptians used these infographics to tell stories of life, work and religion.

The slightly more modern history of infographics might very well start with William Playfair, an early innovator in Statistical Graphics. In 1786, he published The Commercial and Political Atlas, which displayed many bar charts, line graphs and histograms representing the economy in England. He followed this up with the first area chart and first pie chart in 1801 (right).

In 1857, English nurse Florence Nightingale used information graphics -- primarily the coxcomb chart, a combination of stacked bar and pie charts -- to change history and persuade Queen Victoria to improve conditions in military hospitals. Her chart (shown below) showed the number and causes of deaths during each month of the Crimean War: preventable diseases in blue, wounds in red, and other causes in black.

Speaking of England, a big step in the history of infographics was taken in 1933, when 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.

Similarly simplifying things for travelers and tourists, in 1972 Otl Aicher created a set of pictograms for the Munich Olympics that featured stylized human figures. These infographics became incredibly popular and influenced the design of many public signs today -- like the generic stick figure crossing the street on a Walk sign.

Moving on to 1975, we come to the father of data visualization, Edward Tufte. That was the year that, while teaching at Princeton, Tufte developed a seminar on statistical graphics with John Tukey, a pioneer in the field of information design. Tufte later self-published Visual Display in 1982, establishing himself as an infographics expert.

Recent history includes the advent of charts in office-oriented software, particularly Excel and PowerPoint. This explosion of easy-to-use data visualization tools led to an expansion of infographics in academia and the popularization of business intelligence.

Nowadays, of course, web-based data visualization tools are making it easier than ever to create infographics like motion graphics, interactive infographics, Protovis, D3 -- and who knows how the history of infographics will change in the future.

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