Category Archives: Book review

Vintage American infographics | Susan Schulten

Mapping the Nation by Susan Schulten

I reviewed Susan Schulten’s new book, Mapping the Nation: History and cartography in 19th Century America, for publicbooks.org but there were so many images (90%) that did not make it into that review I decided to write a post here, too. This blog tends to focus on contemporary graphics, but information graphics are not new and the historical context of infographic forms is fascinating, especially in light of research that examines the status of information graphics as the output of inscription devices (Latour and Woolgar, 1979). How did we end up with the selection of graphic forms we now have? In what way were these images originally used and by whom?

The images in Schulten’s book – and on her superb companion website – are mostly maps, but there are also a surprising number of information graphics. As Schulten writes, maps and mapping were both made possible because America became a country (and thus had a government that could be petitioned to support the expense of creating maps and provide a centralized repository in which maps could be collectively held and made available) and they made America an imaginable possibility. In short, the establishment of American government made mapping possible and the existence of national maps made America an imaginable possibility. Without being able to see not only the colonies, but also the rest of the North American continent, it would have been far more difficult to imagine and pursue westward expansion, for instance. The first chapters of the book provide a nice companion to Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” that focused on the role of newspapers and novels in creating a national imagination. Schulten is also interested in printed matter, but for her the big deal is mapping.

Maps as propaganda

If mapping in the immediate post-colonial and early frontier eras was exciting – and it was – it got even more exciting during the contentious lead-up to the Civil War. One of the maps I’m including here is propaganda for the abolition of slavery. I have included the whole map as well as a close-up, but I encourage you to click through to Schulten’s companion website where you will find high quality scans of all the maps that will give you far more detail than I am able to show here.

Antebellum Historical Geography Map of US

Antebellum Historical Geography Map of US | by John Smith

Close-up of antebellum historical geography map | John Smith

Close-up of antebellum historical geography map | John Smith

Propaganda is typically not something maps are used for now, at least not in the blatant fashion of the pre-Civil War years, but it is true that maps are depictions of political boundaries and, as such, are ripe for the delivery of political messages. [For a more recent example of US maps used in politically charged ways see modern artist Jasper Johns.]

What I found more intriguing were the maps that displayed their political messages almost invisibly using choropleth techniques. The choropleth technique is still extremely common today and relies on shading assigned to political divisions like state or county lines. Census tract boundaries can also be used. It’s debatable whether or not census tracts are political boundaries but they certainly are not boundaries based on natural features like streams or mountain ranges. Some of the first choropleths were developed to show more precise locations and densities of slave labor in an effort to discredit Southern claims that slavery covered the South like a blanket without which Southern economies would freeze.

Slavery map of US, 1861

Slavery map of US, 1861 | Edwin Hergsheimer

Slavery map of US, 1861 [closeup]

Slavery map of US, 1861 [closeup] | Edwin Hergsheimer

Another attempt at a similar political message – to display variation in slave holdings in order to prove that other economic models were viable and operant in the South during the 1850s – failed as a map but introduced an interesting graphical form. This Missouri map shows county boundaries within each of which there is a small graphic with the overall intent of providing:

A view of the numerical relation of slaves to agricultural wealth in Missouri, Showing in each county the number of slaves to every ten thousand dollars worth of farms and farming implements according to the US Census of 1850.

To interpret the map, then, keep in mind that counties with more dots rely more heavily on slave labor rather than mechanical labor. Of course, counties with few dots could either be utilizing human labor more efficiently, and thus have lower slave-to-machine ratios, or they could have had very little agricultural practice of any kind, slave or free. Because the graphic elements represent such an obscure, unfamiliar measure (slaves-to-machines), the map ought not to be considered a great success. But it is an excellent example of maps depicting thematic data without resorting to choropleths. We could use more of this boundary pushing map-graphic hybridity now

Missouri Slave Density map, 1850 | Edwin Leigh

Missouri Slave Density map, 1850 | Edwin Leigh

Disease mapping in America

With some chagrin, I admit Schulten’s book corrected an inaccurate belief of mine with respect to the use of maps in the detection of disease. I had erroneously thought that John Snow was the first person to use maps as a tool to detect the cause of disease when he pinpointed the cause of London’s cholera epidemic to a public water pump. He was not the first to use maps to discover disease. Americans in Baltimore, Boston, and New Orleans were mapping all sorts of potential causes of diseases like cholera including weather patterns, train routes, proximity to open water, and the eventual culprit, proximity to public water. Snow was the first to hone in on the cause, but he was not the first to use maps. Further, he was likely aware of American public health mapping efforts.

Cholera map of Boston, 1849 | Henry Williams

Cholera map of Boston, 1849 | Henry Williams

Cholera map of Boston, 1849 [closeup] | Henry Williams

Cholera map of Boston, 1849 [closeup] | Henry Williams

Bonus image

I am including one more image – not a map – to show just how fresh 19th century graphics were. This is a graphic that uses states as categories but breaks them out of the map form in order to present them as squares. It is easier to divide squares into percentages, which is just what Francis A. Walker did to show the types of church denominations present from one state to the next. It is easy to see why he avoided using a map – it would be difficult to divide the irregular shapes of states into precise percentages. Further, even if he could divide the irregular areas properly, if he then filled the areas with particular denominations, it would have appeared that the denominations were geographically tied to particular places within the states. His choice of squares as representations of the states is logical. From this graphic solution to his problem we end up with a visual technique for representing all sorts of information that is bound to related categories.

Church denominations in the US by state

Church denominations in the US by state | Francis A. Walker via Susan Schulten

References

Latour and Woolgar. (1979) Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Schulten, Susan. (2012) Mapping the Nation: History and cartography in 19th Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [see also Mapping the Nation website]

Norén, Laura. (2013) Mapping a young America Review of Susan Schulten’s “Mapping the Nation: History and cartography in 19th Century America. PublicBooks.org

The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo | book review

The functional art book cover

Cairo, Alberto. (2013) The Functional Art: An introduction to information graphics and visualization. Berkeley: New Riders, a division of Pearson.

Overview

A functional art is a book in divided into four parts, but really it is easier to understand as only two parts. The first part is a sustained and convincingly argument that information graphics and data visualizations are technologies, not art, and that there are good reasons to follow certain guiding principles when reading and designing them. It is written by Alberto Cairo, a professor of journalism at the University of Miami an information graphics journalist who has had the not always pleasant experience of trying to apply functional rules in organizational structures that occasionally prefer formal rules.

The second part of the book is a series of interviews with journalists, designers, and artists about graphics and the work required to make good ones. This part of the book is as much about the organizational culture of art and design and specifically of graphics desks in newsrooms as it is about graphic design processes. The process drawings are fantastic. I’ve included two of them here. The first by John Grimwade is multi-layered, full of color and dynamic vitality. These qualities were carried through into the final graphic but are often very difficult to build into computer-generated images. I wondered if the graphic would have been as dynamic if it had come from a less well-developed hand sketch (or no sketch at all).

The second is a set of photographs taken of a clay model by Juan Velasco and Fernando Baptista of National Geographic that was used to recreate an ancient dwelling place call Gobekli Tepe that was in what is now Turkey. Both of these examples lead me to the iceberg hypothesis of graphic design – the more the design that shows up in the newspaper or magazine is just the tip of an iceberg of research, development, and creative work, the more accurate and engaging it is likely to be.

As a sociologist I am accustomed to reading interviews and am fascinated by the convergence and divergence in the opinions represented. In this case, I especially appreciated that Cairo’s interview questions touched on the organizational structures and working arrangements, as did his own anecdotes throughout the book, to provide an understanding of the opportunities and constraints journalists and information graphic designers face. Their work is massively collaborative and the book works to reveal the bureaucratic structures that come to promote and impinge upon design processes and products.

There is a fifth part to the book, too, a DVD of Cairo presenting the material covered in the first three chapters of the book. I admit, I have rarely been a large fan of DVD inclusions. They are easy to lose, scratch and/or break. But assuming the DVD is intact and accessible, I never know when I ought to stop reading and start watching. And even if the book has annotations indicating that an obedient reader should stop reading and start watching the DVD, this assumes the reader is willing and able to put down the book and fire up the computer. The only time I can imagine using the DVD is as a teaching aid in class to give the students a break from having to listen to me all the time. Unfortunately, that is prohibited by Pearson.

Still, it is worth watching because Cairo has a great voice and he is able to discuss interactive content/design in a way that is not easy in the pages of the book. While some of the discussion repeats themes from the first part of the book, there are new examples from additional designers, including some who have been Cairo’s students, which might be of interest to people thinking of signing up for his online course.

What does this book do well?

"Brazilian population grows more in prisons" graphic

“Brazilian population grows more in prisons” by Alberto Cairo originally in Epoca magazine November 2010, reprinted in “The Functional Art” by Alberto Cairo in 2013.

The book does a great job of explaining the decision making behind graphic design. The sketches, process drawings, and recounts of the conversations that went on in editorial meetings gave important depth of context. The organizational culture and day-to-day expectations of the newsroom tend to encourage the use of templates and discourage exuberant creativity. Cairo explained that this Brazilian prison graphic that eventually won the Malofiel design award also won him a reprimand from his boss who proclaimed it to be “ugly”. In practice, conceptual distinctions between art and technologies for comprehension are made rigid by bureaucratic structures in which, “the infographics director is subordinate to the art director, who is usually a graphic designer,” and that this arrangement, “can lead to damaging misunderstandings.”

The more prominent argument follows from these peeks into the backstage of journalism. Infographics and visualizations are technologies, not illustrations. Cairo writes that:

The first and main goal of any graphic and visualization is to be a tool for your eyes and brain to perceive what lies beyond their natural reach….The form of a technological object must depend on the tasks it should help with….the form should be constrained by the functions of your presentation….the better defined the goals of an artifact, the narrower the variety of forms it can adopt.

One of the writing techniques that Cairo uses is summarizing his take-away points from previous paragraphs in quick lists of pointers or key questions. Cairo incorporated these quick lists gracefully into the writing style and I never felt like I was reading a textbook. Still, the quick lists make it easy to use the book as a reference. The index, bibliography and detailed table of contents add strength to the book as a reference source, too. Note to the publisher: I found it frustrating that the book did not include a list of figures, especially given the subject matter.

"Home and Factory Weaving in England, 1820-1880" graphic

“Home and Factory Weaving in England, 1820-1880″ Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection, University of Reading as seen in The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo.

Diversity

One of the greatest strengths of this book is the diversity of sources from which Cairo draws his material. Yes, he uses graphics he has developed in many cases which is hugely valuable because he is able to provide insights into the development processes. However, he also draws from graphics old and new [see an old one he pulled out of an archive at the University of Reading about weaving in the industrial revolution], from magazines, newspapers, and the internet, made by freelancers, in-house designers, and students, and in languages other than English (some of which are translated, some of which impressively need little translation). My favorite graphic in the book was one I never would have come across that uses pieces of fruit to describe the surgical procedures used to achieve sexual reassignment.

“How sex change surgeries work.” by Renata Steffen, William Vieira, Alex Silva and Sergio Gwercman in Superinteressante magazine (Brazil). Part 1 of 2.

“How sex change surgeries work.” by Renata Steffen, William Vieira, Alex Silva and Sergio Gwercman in Superinteressante magazine (Brazil). Part 2 of 2.

This diversity serves as an example of the breadth of Cairo’s experience in the world of journalistic information graphics. It is also a testament to his real joy in the subject. Many authors of design books are happy to fill the pages with their own work. Cairo is surely talented enough to have done. Instead, he chose to showcase an incredible range of designers and styles. This diversity, combined with the accessibility of the writing, are cause enough to recommend this book for anyone who is curious about graphics and journalism, especially journalism students.

What doesn’t this book do well?

The most curious shortcoming – given the incredible diversity of designers, styles, countries, and publication types represented – is the scarcity of women designers. There are thirteen designers profiled in part IV of the book; only two are women. There were forty-seven graphics reprinted; five were designed by women. With respect to the reprints, Cairo is completely justified in reprinting his own work more often than the work of others because he knows how the design process unfolded in those cases. Since he is a man, this inflates the masculine contribution to the reprinted graphics category. Still, many of the graphics he worked on were collaborative efforts and his collaborators could have been women in a more ideal world. But mostly, they were men.

Because the information graphics world is relatively interdisciplinary and (so far as I know) has no specific professional organization whose membership includes a representative sample of practicing information graphics and data visualization professionals, it is hard to tell if the gendered pattern in Cairo’s book is due to some oversight on his part or the underlying gendered make-up of the industry or a combination of both. Even if the industry is dominated by men, it is important for people who write and edit textbooks to ensure that women are represented or they run the risk of sending the message that women may not be welcome or well-rewarded if they choose to pursue data visualization. That is unacceptable. The graphics world will lose out on half its talent pool and women might avoid careers that could have been satisfying and rewarding for them. Notably, the kinds of graphic design that require coding – like data visualization and interactive design – are better compensated than illustration and static design so it’s possible that women are being subtly nudged into the less well-compensated areas of graphic design along the line. It would have been nice if this textbook that is so diverse in so many other ways could have pushed the gender boundary and included more women.

The book also over-promises in the cognition section. The first chapter on cognition was too basic. The second and third chapters in this section had more that was directly applicable to design. All three chapters could have been condensed into one. It is certainly true that perception and cognition ought to be included and there were some useful applications derived from the three chapters, but there was too much review and too few clear applications of the basic principles of cognition and perception to graphic design.

Here are the pointers I did find useful, if you happen to want to buy the book and skip those chapters:

+ If you want viewers to estimate changes by visually comparing elements, you will have the best luck if those changes are depicted using elements of the smallest number of dimensions possible. For instance, viewers will have an easier time coming up with an accurate estimate of the difference in size between two lines (1D) than between two circles or squares (2D). It’s best to avoid 3D comparisons altogether. I would also add that regular objects like circles and squares are cognitively easier to think with than irregular objects like polygons other than squares.

+ The less frequently a color appears in nature, the more likely it is to draw the eye. Reserve the use of colors like red, pink, purple, orange, teal, and yellow for elements that are meant to draw attention.

+ Humans cannot focus on multiple elements at the same time. Design graphics that have one focal point or clear hierarchies of focal points. Do this by eliminating unnecessary use of bright color, chart junk like grid lines that aren’t absolutely necessary, and by establishing a logical information hierarchy in the page layout.

+ Landscapes have horizon lines. Humans are used to encountering the world this way. This is one reason why it is easier to make comparisons using bar graphs (where all the elements start from a common horizon line) rather than pie charts (where there is no shared horizon).

+ Eyes are good at detecting motion and they will focus attention on moving objects. Try not to ask viewers to read text and simultaneously watch a moving element in interactive graphics.

+ Human brains are good at picking out patterns. Often, fairly small changes to a graphic layout that strengthen the appearance of grouping or other types of patterns will add to the ability of the graphic to deliver an instant impression or overview of the message being communicated. For instance, changing the spacing of the bars in a bar graph so that every fourth bar has twice as much space after it as all the rest will make the graph appear to have groups of 4-bar units.

+ Interposition – placing one object in front of another so they overlap – is a good way to add depth. If objects never overlap, the opportunity for the illusion of depth is lost.

Summary

Overall, the book was well-written, included valuable insight into the process underlying the creation of strong, successful information graphics and visualizations, and would be a solid textbook for use in journalism departments. The representation of women designers was disappointingly low and the segment on cognition could be condensed or otherwise improved. Cairo is clearly a talented designer and teacher. This book meaningfully combines both of those strengths and is an important contribution to undergraduate and graduate education in the emerging sub-discipline of information visualization and design.

I am sending you out with one of the graphics I was most impressed by, in part because the graphic is good, but mostly because Cairo helped me to see why a rather average looking graphic is in fact rather brilliant. It is by Hannah Fairfield of the New York Times graphic desk and it shows that the driving behavior of Americans is sensitive to changes in the economy. During the 2005 recession when gas prices were high but the economy was struggling overall, Americans drove fewer miles. This pattern had only one historical precedent – the 1970s. The graphic depicts this by having a timeline that appears to walk backwards during those two periods in history, a broken pattern your pattern-loving mind is likely to fixate on once you realize this is not your average line graph. Smart.

References

Cairo, Alberto. (2013) The functional art: An introduction to information graphics and visualization.

Fairfield, Hannah. (2010) Driving Shifts into Reverse New York: New York Times.

Grimwade, John. (1996) The Transatlantic Superhighway. [information graphic]. New York: Conde Nast Traveler.

Steffen, Renata; Vieira, William; Silva, Alex and Gwercman, Sergio. “How sex change surgeries work.” Superinteressante magazine. Brazil.

Velasco, Juan and Fernando Baptista. () “Gobekli Tepe Process Shots”. National Geographic Magazine. In Cairo, Alberto (2013) The Functional Art p. 238.