17
Oct

Making Sense of the Early SenseMakers

Thank you, William Playfair… for going beyond the words and the numbers.

As part of a “White Paper” we are doing at Humantific on the subject of data visualization, I have been enjoying revisiting some of the historical material from the 18th century. I always enjoy looking at the logic behind early data visualizations and learn a lot from the perspective of how to make things more understandable and clear.

For this study, I am spending more time specifically on William Playfair (1759-1823), among the first persons to create graphic representations of data (He was preceded by Joseph Priestly, who created the first timeline chart in 1765). Playfair is credited with being the inventor of line, bar and pie charts. For this paper, I am not focusing so much on how the charts work or don’t work, but, rather, what were they pictures of.

 William Playfair’s historic “Commercial and Political Atlas”, 1786,
described as the first major work to contain statistical graphs.

Reflecting on when this happened… I started to wonder: If Playfair came up with one of the first graphical representations of data, how did people make sense of all those numbers before? I mean, really, how did people actually make sense of everything before? 

When someone says the airplane was invented, we all think, “Wow, that was amazing,” but we don’t always put ourselves at that moment of time, and think about what it meant to not be able to get on a flight to go see your family across the ocean, to go down to the Caribbean for a beautiful vacation, to go to a meeting, etc, etc. I guess most of us would be much closer to our original birthplaces–and if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be going back that often.

So, back to that time when Playfair had that inspiration to represent numbers visually… or, as he called it, making “Data speak to the eyes”.  Being a visual learner, I can’t imagine what that would be like… the fact that studying any subject, would be just words and numbers. Would my ability to understand and learn (and go to the next level of learning and development) be seriously diminished? What would school have been for me growing up? Not that my school years reflected a tremendous amount of meaningful visualization, but it definitely was part of the vocabulary and it helped me learn better.

The second thought I had, was, being such a visual sensemaker myself, would I have started to draw things intuitively to understand them, or would I have stayed in that highly verbal world and struggled to operate in it?

I guess that we will never know the true answer to those questions since we can’t go back and unlearn all the visual language we now take for granted; however, I would venture to say (and I am sure many others would too) that it’s pretty likely that my ability to learn and excel would be diminished quite a bit. A highly verbal language only speaks to a part of the population, as we know from many studies on cognition and multiple intelligence theories.

Thank you, Playfair, for going beyond the words and the numbers, and revealing what is behind the data. For all of us visual thinkers and learners, it’s made a big difference! Really.

:::

[ And thank you to Howard Wainer and Ian Spence for republishing Playfair’s The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary ]

More on William Playfair on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Playfair

Image Source: Playfair, William. The Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary. Wainer, H. and Spence, I., Eds. 2005. Humantific Collection, New York. Reproduced from Playfair’s Atlas, 3rd ed. London: J. Wallis, 1801.

Related on this Humantific blog:

Consider TIME / Big Data for WHEN?

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