Tag: Statistical Graphics


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?


Lost Stories Information Design History

In a competitive business marketplace, not everyone wants to acknowledge that each generation tends to learn from, build on, or divert from the previous generation’s ideas and output. We see this phenomenon clearly evident in the various streams of Visual SenseMaking history.

Predating the important work of Isotype Institute are numerous landmarks in the history of Statistical Graphics, which later evolved into Information Design—some aspects of which evolved into “Information Architecture” and then in a different direction “Visual SenseMaking” today, a subsubsetset of which has evolved into Data Visualization (long story for another day). Some historical landmarks are well known to many, while others remain off most radar screens, especially to new generations. Particularly online, we notice a general lack of historical awareness and crediting in many current data visualization, design and innovation-related discussions.

At Humantific, we have significant interest in the forgotten stories, lost stories, and off-the-beaten-path landmarks of sensemaking and changemaking history, as they have the potential to inform present day understanding significantly. We try to gather such stories and make them part of the collection that we share here publicly. One such landmark publication is Willard Cope Brinton’s 1917 book, Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts.

Willard C. Brinton (1880-1957) remains a relative unknown, one of several largely unsung, historical visual thinking pioneers. No entry for Brinton appears on Wikipedia, for example. Who he was, what he did, and why it was important is one of many stories buried in the history of Information Design.

Published in black and white when Brinton was thirty-four years old, the 371 page Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts is an impressive, early survey of what would today be considered to be bare-bones statistical diagrams and graphic techniques that existed at that moment. Now scarce in original form, this early volume is recognized as the first American book focused on graphic techniques geared for a general audience.

What a rockin’ idea it must have been in 1917 to do a “visual thinking techniques” book! From the book’s introduction: “As far as the author is aware, there is no book published in any language covering the field which it has been attempted to cover here.”

In the book, Brinton refers to himself as a “Consulting Engineer,” and member of the Society of Mechanical Engineers. He had an office here in New York City! He was Chairman of a committee on standards for graphic presentation formed in 1914, as well as a fellow of the American Statistical Association.  An engineering approach is clearly evident, as is the focus on building diagrams based on data, statistics, and facts. Notably, Brinton’s orientation in the book is one of advisor and commentator on the assembled work of others—an orientation that can also be seen, much later, in the work of Edward Tufte.

Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts contains numerous gems, including one particularly significant page in 20th century information design history. On page 39 (shown middle above), one can see an important design idea that Isotype is often given credit for originating. The evolutionary notion of repeating figure icons, rather than increasing their size, to depict size of a group became part of Isotype’s now well-known visual language style. Rumor has it, that Brinton’s book was in Otto Neurath’s 1920’s library. Ninety+ years after it appeared in Brinton’s book, this design idea, in refined form, is still very much in use today.

The truth is, much of the early writing on the subject of Statistical Graphics tends to be tactical; Brinton writes, in his comments, on a particular diagram by others: “This is an admirable piece of presentation even though the lettering and drafting are not quite as good as they might have been if more care had been used…” This kind of tactical commentary on now-out-of-date techniques makes up a large part of the book. Even today, many techniques in any technology get dated very quickly. It is often hard to know what has legs, and what will be gone tomorrow.


At Humantific, we are generally less interested in rapidly dated tactics, and more interested in broader considerations. What we do is look at historical Information Design materials through a time-oriented viewing frame, a simple 3-part lens that we call SenseWHEN. Apart from technique considerations, we want to know: WHEN was the focus of the picture being viewed? Was the goal to create a sensemaking picture of  Yesterday, Today or Tomorrow? We also want to know, at what scale were the views taken? Is this a picture of a person, a product, an organization, or a society?

Utilizing these simple viewing lenses, we notice that much of Information Design history, including that appearing in this early book, has been focused on creating sensemaking pictures of Yesterday and Today. Most often, these are pictures that can be constructed from data sets and facts. Much less frequently in that history, do you see pictures of Tomorrow. This is an entire subject unto itself that we will be writing more about, as it connects directly to what we do at Humantific: How can pictures of Tomorrow be cocreated in real time, by humans from multiple disciplines? It remains a subject that is near and dear to us. It certainly does connect to the history of Information Design seen here, but is rather different in orientation.

If Brinton preceded Neurath’s Isotype, you might be wondering: Who preceded Brinton? In his later, much more graphic, 1939 self-published book entitled Graphic Presentation, Brinton acknowledged that he did not know of the earlier groundbreaking work of William Playfair (1759-1823) when he was working, in 1912, on Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts. Brinton dedicated his 1939 book to Playfair, who is credited with creating some of the earliest examples of diagrams in his 1786, 1801, 1805, and 1822 books. William Playfair was also an Engineer, making pictures of Yesterday and Today.

For those who might not know—yes, before Playfair, there was Joseph Priestly (not an Engineer) who made timelines of Yesterday and Today. On and on it goes…:-)

Images Source: Brinton, Willard Cope. Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts. 1917. Diagrams by Willard Cope Brinton & Others. Humantific Collection, New York.


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Making Sense of Early SenseMakers