US population growth 1790-1990 [freeze frame at 1920] - University of Kentucky Appalachian Center
US population growth 1790-1990 {freeze frame at 1920} - University of Kentucky Appalachian Center

Link rot note

This post used to source a population growth animation from but that website is no more. The University of Kentucky Appalachian Center is better, so count yourselves lucky if you missed the original post in favor of this update.

What Works

First, you must click through and watch the animation. Praise #1: yay for gifs.

Like the previous post that looked at China, this animation is trying to tell a story about population growth over time. The major difference is that the Chinese example was strictly demographic – looking at variables like gender and age but not at all concerned with geography. This one shows both geography and population growth though it does not include information about gender, age, race, etc.

What Needs Work

If this graphic were three dimensional, if density piled up, it would start to ‘feel’ heavier over time so that the same way that the westward expansion of the population just appears without you having to puzzle it out, the density of population in cities would be simply obvious. This is not meant to be a dig to the graphic’s creator. I just offer this critique as a way to think about just why and how ‘seeing is believing’. Watching the population move west is certainly a ‘seeing is believing’ moment because viewers do not have to think, they just have to watch. Realizing that the population of the US is now hugely larger than it was back in the 1880’s actually takes a little thought. You have to realize that not only did people move west, but they continued to live in the east in greater densities which is indicated by the size of the yellow circles, but would be even more obvious if the cities were like little hillocks on the landscape. Big yellow dots equaling density requires a move from the ‘seeing is believing’ to something else. If, however, the map grew in the third dimension as a more direct representation of the mass of humanity sitting on the face of the earth at these locations, we’d be back in ‘seeing is believing’ territory.

A graphic that is a ‘seeing is believing’ creation is instantly legible and can free your brain to think about other things which is a good thing. On the other hand, a graphic that achieves a ‘seeing is believing’ mechanism will end up obscuring complexity. This is good when that complexity does not add to the ability to think through the next set of concerns, but can be a serious drawback. It is good to be able to get a diversity of people able to quickly grasp an argument, but there is a danger in presenting an hermetically sealed glossy image.

Relevant Resources

University of Kentucky Appalachian Center. US Population Growth from 1790-1990