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ReAppreciating Willard C. Brinton

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 generations 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 yesterday and Visual SenseMaking today (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 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 adviser 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…:-)

Image Source: Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts, 1917, by Willard Cope Brinton.

Diagrams by Willard Cope Brinton & Others. Humantific Collection, New York.


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