Infographics are by no means a new phenomenon. The modern infographic can be traced back to a 1626 book authored by the astronomer Christoph Scheiner detailing the rotations of the sun. Florence Nightingale used infographics to convince Queen Victoria to improve hospital conditions during the Crimean War. One of the most well-known early infographics was created by Charles Joseph Minard in 1861; it shows the factors that contributed to the demise of Napoleon’s army as THEY marched through Moscow. Abraham Lincoln was known to spend many hours at a time examining a shaded map depicting the Southern United States and the population of slaves per county.
One of the infographics used by Florence Nightingale
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Infographic of Napoleon’s march to Moscow
Source: Wikimedia Commons
It is no coincidence that the recent influx of infographics corresponds with the deluge of data that we can now collect and are expected to process. Processing data in its raw form is a pretty difficult task for our brains. Displaying the data visually, however, significantly improves its absorption. Roughly half of our brain is involved in processing images, far more than any of our other senses. Furthermore, the brain is able to process images all at once, as opposed to processing it linearly, as it would if it was trying to process a large amount of text.
Spread from the Feltron Annual Report, 2012. Each year, designer Nicholas Felton maps his personal data, such as restaurants eaten in or states visited. See more here.
Many studies show that new media is changing the way our brains process and store information. The average attention span is currently clocked at around 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000 (for reference, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds). Seventeen percent of website page views last less than 4 seconds, and it is estimated that only 28 percent of words on an average webpage are actually read.
Those may seem like some fairly grim statistics, but I believe they present a great opportunity. The future looks bright for an integrated approach, communicating using a combined effort of words, images, video and other media. A great example of this is Snow Fall, a piece published in 2012 by the New York Times.
Snow Fall, the New York Times
Infographics will continue to evolve to meet the needs of our culture, and I am excited to see what is in store.
Elizabeth VanStee is a Graphic Designer for Airfoil, a high-tech PR and marcomm firm with offices in Silicon Valley, Detroit, London and Hong Kong. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @evanstee.