For the love of stats & graphs

Adam Isler started me back on the track of infographics with one of his many lovely images captured on the subway in New York.

I said (in response) that I thought the creator of the subway image behind his subject hadn’t been to the Harry Beck school of information design.

The beautiful London Underground map design, in its latest iteration below, was redesigned by Beck in 1932 as a graphical representation of the relationships between the stations and the lines after he recognised that underground the true geography of the map would not matter to the train users but the connections would.

the tube


Adam reminded me of the modern day master Prof Edward Tufte who has also made it his life’s work to turn information into something far more engaging.

Lauded as the “The Leonardo da Vinci of data.” by the The New York Times and “The Galileo of graphics.” by Business Week, Tufte’s website is a rich resource for the would-be cartographer or data wrangler wishing to tell stories through diagrams, maps or other types of graphics.


The accolades for Tufte are also a reminder of the ancient tradition of demonstrating information through maps and graphics.
The wonderful canvas Emily Kngwarreye's 'Anwerlarr Anganenty' (Big Yam Dreaming) paintingby Emily Kngwarreye, ‘Anwerlarr Anganenty’ (Big Yam Dreaming), is a mesmerising work from one of the Western Desert artists who depict spatial and ceremonial store and detail cultural knowledge through a multilayered representation of land & meaning. Although the methods and the apparent abstract quality of the work are striking as ‘art’ the traditional ‘teller’ has more to explain and reveal on each viewing.

So what helps us to see information? The Western Desert Exhibition was derided by some British critics when over 200 works were shown in London in 2012. Some comments arrogantly suggested the exhibiting artists were somehow ‘corrupted’ by Western influence and their works rendered ‘inauthentic’. Andrew Gormley, who had spent time in Western Australia, made an effort as translator between the works presented and the British viewing public’s potential understanding – “The works of the Indigenous Australians like those of Rover Thomas and Emily Kame Kngwarreye show the land speaking in the dream mapping of its original inhabitants. While artists from a deracinated European tradition continue to make pictures, the native Australian maps the experience of being the land and allows it to move through him or her.” (See John Eccles writing on Aboriginal Art)

Just as Galileo’s renaissance of human knowledge and its representation in the mapping the stars, moon and planets in 1632, was to the unlearned eye (or to those wishing to maintain a certain view of the world), incomprehensible, challenging or even alarming even now the graphic representation of information can meet resistance.

Galiieo Galilei wpid-Beautiful-2

At times I’ve worked with people who struggle with any form of graphical information. They are often highly text literate but cannot readily interpret a graph, a diagram or a map without having a level of description associated with it.

For we graphically inclined types this can create a lot of stress re-interpreting and representing information in a succinct way for those who apparently find information as imagery perplexing. We often have to use pointers, markers and notation which can often detract from the simplest graphic telling of the story.


Unsurprisingly, artists themselves will often revel in the exploration of information as illustration. The simplest of illustrations, such as Paul Klee’s colour wheel gives an insight, not just to the known spectrum, but to the artist himself and in this case the emphasis Klee may have placed on his palette.


Paul Klees notebooksPaul Klee

We artists would similarly be engaged by, and possibly more readily able to interpret, the sort of infographics which relate to those things we might aspire to, such as the working patterns of creative blokes. (Women artists and writers would probably value seeing the graphic equivalent for renowned peers of their own gender.)


or this info graphic which gives the intersecting chronologies of recognised western artists and the age at which some of their great works were produced.artist info feature

The growing technology available for graphic data representation provides room for experimentation and even marketing where the image itself sends an immediate message to the viewer about the subject and then draws them in further to explore the detail – like Stanford Kay’s carbon footprints below.


Representing survey information is another fascinating area for the knowledge sharer.

Gareth Sleightholme explored his survey in various ways before publishing the findings. I quite liked the Venn bubbles and the idea that each subset of people were in reading rooms or perhaps outside of the reading space but Gareth rejected this option as not being the right type of communication he needed.


Gareth is an incredibly talented illustrator and games developer so his ability to bridge those skills and knowledge into his research is quite inspiring. He wrote “My Masters Degree Study looked in particular at Visualisation of Educational Concepts for Art School Students, and links between Reading, Empathy and Creativity as well as Developing Concept Art for an Empathy/Games based research project called Rabbit Heart.”

A couple of infographics which are remarkably intricate and fascinating to me are the representation of the Java Railways – the one below showing the section from Surabaya to Yogyakarta is described in Tufte’s book Envisioning Information

trains java

and the genealogy of music which could easily absorb many an hour of interrogation and exploration.


The graphic representation of military data for strategic purposes is also an ancient art. But graphic analysis has also provided some sombre reflection of the futility of conflict and Florence Nightingale  demonstrated the scale and nature of deaths in a highly original graphic produced in the Crimean War  in a report sent to Queen Victoria.


Florence Nightingale 1858

Nightingale’s insight into data collection, information and its communication earned her election as the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society and she later became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.



This circular histogram or polar area diagram is attributed to her – Nightingale originally described this as a coxcomb diagram.

Sean Askay’s rather challenging study ‘Map the Fallen’ also looks at the military  deaths through the wars in the Middle East but through new sources of crowdsourcing data and compiling the underpinning stories into a rich and sometimes confronting archive of information.


 Still, for all the graphics, the human story behind the data remains the most poignant.
“There’ll be two dates on your tombstone
And all your friends will read ’em
But all that’s gonna matter is that little dash between ’em…”
Sean Askay




2 thoughts on “For the love of stats & graphs

  1. Fascinating! So many ways to show data. I am going to forward this on to a friend of mine. We are part of group of artists organising an exhibition, and she and I are tasked with creating a timeline. I am going to start it off with paper and coloured pens, which she will translate into digital. She says that easy for her, as her job is project managing and does it all the time. i am curious to see if it will be a delightful as your examples!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anne that’s exciting – when and where will your exhibition be happening? Would love to come & see your work. Yes sadly we types tend to end up doing project management roles I think because of the modicum of creativity (on Friday I was called in to do the timeline diagrams for about 3 projects we currently have on the go. Sad!)


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