Information graphics or infographics are visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics are used anywhere where information needs to be explained quickly or simply, such as in signs, maps, journalism, technical writing, and education. They are also used extensively as tools by computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians to ease the process of developing and communicating conceptual information. They are applied in all aspects of scientific visualization.
History of information graphics
In 1626 Christopher Scheiner published the Rosa Ursina sive Sol which used a variety of graphics to reveal his astronomical research on the sun. He used a series of images to explain the rotation of the sun over time (by tracking sunspots).
In 1786, William Playfair published the first data graphs in his book The Commercial and Political Atlas. The book is filled with statistical graphs that represent the economy of 18th century England using bar charts and histograms. In 1801 Playfair introduced the first area chart in Statistical Breviary.
James Joseph Sylvester introduced the term "graph" in 1878 and published a set of diagrams showing the relationship between chemical bonds and mathematical properties. These were also the first mathematic graphs.
1861 saw the release of a seminal information graphic on the subject of Napoleon's disastrous march on Moscow. The creator, Charles Joseph Minard, captured four different changing variables that contributed to the failure, in a single two-dimensional image:
- the army's direction as they travelled
- the location the troops passed through
- the size of the army as troops died from hunger and wounds
- the freezing temperatures they experienced
Development of a visual language
In 1936 Otto Neurath introduced a system of pictographs intended to function as an international visual or picture language. Isotype included a set of stylized human figures which were the basis for the ubiquitous modern stick figures.
The 1972 Munich Olympics were the venue for Otl Aicher to introduce a new set of pictograms that proved to be extremely popular, and influenced the ubiquitous modern stick figures used in public signs.
Also in 1972 the Pioneer Plaque was launched into space with the Pioneer 10 probe. Inscribed into the plaque was an information graphic intended as a kind of interstellar message in a bottle, designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. The message is unique in that it is intended to be understood by extraterrestrial beings who would share no common language with humans. It depicts a picture of a man and a woman standing in front of a simplified silhouette of the probe in order to give a sense of scale. It also contains a map locating the sun relative to a number of pulsars, and a simplified depiction of the solar system, with the probe's path from earth into outer space shown with an arrow.
Elements of information graphics
The basic material of an information graphic is the data, information, or knowledge that the graphic presents. In the case of data, the creator may make use of automated tools such as graphing software to represent the data in the form of lines, boxes, arrows, and various symbols and pictograms. The information graphic might also feature a key which defines the visual elements in plain English. A scale and labels are also common.
Modern practitioners of information graphics / design
A statistician and sculptor, Edward Tufte has written a series of highly regarded books on the subject of information graphics. Tufte also delivers lectures and workshops on a regular basis. He describes the process of incorporating many dimensions of information into a two-dimensional image as 'escaping flatland' (alluding to the 2-dimensional world of the Victorian novella Flatland).
Nigel Holmes is an established commercial creator of what he calls "explanation graphics". His works deal not only with the visual display of information but also of knowledge - how to do things. He created graphics for Time magazine for 16 years, and is the author of several books on the subject.
Close and strongly related to the field of information graphics, is information design. Actually, making infographics is a certain discipline within the information design world. Modern day American information designers, like Nigel Holmes, Edward Tufte, Peter Sullivan and Sam Ward, Donald Norman; are accompanied by a very active Dutch information designer: Paul Mijksenaar. His Amsterdam and New York based design studio is specialized in the development of visual oriented information systems. They create so called wayfinding and waysigning systems for all kinds of large public transport systems and infrastructures. Examples of their work are, the signing systems for airports in the Netherlands (Schiphol, Amsterdam), but also for airports in Italy and the United States like: JFK and Dallas Fort Worth.
Types of information graphic
- concept map
- contour map
- isotherm, isobar
- mind map
- signage systems
Interpreting information graphics
Many information graphics are specialised forms of depiction that represent their content in sophisticated and often abstract ways. In order to interpret the meaning of these graphics appropriately, the viewer requires a suitable level of graphicacy. In many cases, the required graphicacy involves comprehension skills that are learned rather than innate. At a fundamental level, the skills of decoding individual graphic signs and symbols must be acquired before sense can be made of an information graphic as a whole. However, knowledge of the conventions for distributing and arranging these individual components is also necessary for the building of understanding.
- "Blood, Dirt, and Nomograms: A Particular History of Graphs", Thomas L. Hankins, Isis, University of Chicago Press (1999, 90: 50-80). 
- "Designing Infographics" (1998), Eric K. Meyer
- Examples of information graphics
- Milestones in the History of Thematic Cartography, Statistical Graphics and Data Visualization
- Nigel Holmes, the Explanation Graphics and the Power of Pictures
- Richard Saul Wurman's excellent visual overview of information about the United States
- UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library, web-site from the UN Environment Programme with hundreds of information graphics and mapsde:Informationsgraphik