Why should charts exist?
Light entertainment: enjoy the shower!

Have data graphics progressed in the last century?

Received a wonderful link via reader Lonnie P. to this website that presents a historical reconstruction of W.E.B. DuBois's exhibit of the "American negro" at the 1900 Paris Expo. Amusingly, DuBois presented a large series of data graphics to educate the world on the state (plight) of blacks in America over a century ago.

You can really spend a whole afternoon examining these charts (and more); too bad the charts have poor resolution and it is often hard to make out the details.


Judging from this evidence, we must face up to the fact that data graphics have made little progress during these eleven decades. Ideas, good or bad, get reinvented. Disappointingly, we haven't learned from the worst ones.

Exhibit A 


(see discussion here)

Exhibit B


 (see discussion here)

Exhibit C 


(See discussion here.)

Exhibit D

 (see the Vampire chart here)

Exhibit E

(see the discussion here.)

Exhibit F

(see discussion here.)


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The fact that it is now easier to create these kinds of graphics makes them usually worse than in the past, when they have been "hand picked".

But if we talk about data graphics as in "data analysis", we certainly can do much more today than 100 years ago - though the distinction between exploration graphics and presentation graphics is not much understood by many (scholars) so far.

Nonetheless, it is always good to look at "the old stuff" to raise the bar for what we are doing today!

Ken Williams

I'm not buying your analysis. I could ask, "has construction technology progressed in the last century", then show a picture of a hammer from 1900 and a similar hammer from 2000, and conclude, "no, it hasn't". Clearly absurd, it shows nothing.


Ken: I was hoping that this post would provoke some discussion here. I know a lot of people read the post; maybe they agree? If you'd like to offer a counter-argument, that could get things started.


Hammers are good, technologically-mature tools that still have a place in construction. If we showed a picture of bad nineteenth century construction practice and then showed the same mistakes being made today, it would be legitimate to ask "when will we see the end of this bad practice?" Which leads to "how do we ensure the end of this bad practice?" I'm not sure we ever will completely, but we can spread the word and make it just a little less common.


coming from a complete layman's point of view from another website, isn't it just that the people have gotten better with graphics, rather than the distortion of data?



I'd love to have a discussion about this in greater detail. I agree information graphics haven't evolved over the last century in style or misuse! I am currently writing a paper for my information design class and find myself rubbed the wrong way on an almost daily level. Empowering students with the ability to create infographics with absolutely no discussion about stats, how to use data, how to skew it, etc is irresponsible. When I brought up the notion of correlation not implying causation in class, everyone got up in arms like I had some huge beef with info graphics. The students are told that infographics are the pinnacle of objectivity. It's absurd to me to think that we spend an semester literally worshipping William Playfair but refuse to even make a single note about how to use numbers. My professor who defines herself as an infrographic designer doesn't know the difference between mean, median, or mode. It's all 'the average of this and that'. It makes me want to explode in class when I get reprimanded for attempting to discuss this, in my opinion, huge design issue.

I love infographics but after a semester of 3rd level university info design I find myself so fundamentally opposed to the teachings and misuse, I no longer want to be involved.

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