Have you ever noticed how quickly humus goes off? I swear it happens so fast you can almost see the degradation as if you were watching time-lapse footage of it. That’s why when I stumbled across an infographic called ‘The Table of Condiments That Periodically Go Bad’ and saw humus at the very top, I thought the visual representation of its instability totally hit the nail on the head (it sits where hydrogen normally would on the periodic table). With humour and candour, it says with images what words can only hope to convey.
I’ve loved infographics ever since (my other favourite is the Periodic Table of Swearing – a real talking point – and pretty much any infographic in the book Information Is Beautiful). They demystify the hard to explain and bring to life even the most obtuse and pedestrian of subjects. For me, infographics are the marriage of two things I love the most – delectable colours and beautiful information. Individually they excite me but together? Well, they’re like the couple that has it all.
My discovery of infographics only goes back a few years but in researching them for The Colour File I discovered that they have, in fact, been around for centuries. It’s suggested that the first infographic was in 1626 when Christoph Scheiner published a book illustrating the rotation of the sun, then in 1786 engineer and political economist William Playfair published the first data graphs in his book The Commercial and Political Atlas. He used statistical graphs, charts and histograms to represent the economy of 18th Century England. From what I can see, he turned something prosaic into something very beautiful.
Around 30 years later, Carl Ritter founded modern geography by producing maps with repeatable features such as legends and scales that we still recognise in geography today. But the creator of infographics that has most surprised and delighted me is ministering angel Florence Nightingale. Apparently she was a phenomenal statistician and toiled into the night turning information she’d gathered about sick soldiers and their plight into easily digestible and informative images that were so powerful they persuaded Queen Victoria to improve conditions in military hospitals. This makes me love infographics even more.
I’ve had two encounters with infographics in the past week that have prompted me to write this blog and share my giddy enthusiasm for the subject. One was when I went to The Other Art Fair and met artist Steve McPherson. I’ve admired his work ever since I discovered the joys of people using marine litter to create art but it wasn’t until the art fair that I understood that some of his work has fascinating infographic qualities, too. He explained one of them, Solar Effects (see below), to me: “It’s an infographic describing the mean temperature of the nine official weeks of this year’s summer. Data taken from the Met Office is used to correlate the coloured plastic objects with the weeks’ mean temperatures.” For me, it ticks so many boxes – empirical information presented in the form of a stunning piece of art created with hitherto unwanted but now reclaimed objects. It is utterly mesmerising.
My other personal infographic encounter this week was buying a stunning 1800s picture from Etsy (as I write this, it is currently winging its way over the Atlantic from New York, shortly to be framed for Colour File HQ). I fell in love with the colours and shapes (they are spookily similar to The Colour File logo – if it had been eight months ago I swear they could have been the inspiration) but I know that when it arrives I’ll no doubt get lost in the information contained within it and what it all means. Up until now I confess to not having much interest in the ratio of church accommodation to the 1887 population of America over 10 years of age, but who knows? A captivating infographic may yet change all of that.
William Morris spoke of the imperative for things you own to be either useful or beautiful. To me, infographics fulfil both these criteria, and art created for that purpose is therefore, I feel, the nadir of perfection on that front. Here’s wishing this clever union of form and information a long and happy marriage.