The Evolution of Infographics

By Eugene Woo, Mar 29, 2015

The history of data and information visualization is both rich and fascinating. We have been trying to pass on our stories in a visual form since the first cave people learned how to draw on the walls of their humble homes.  To quote Michael Friendly, from York University“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. But if only we could! The history of statistical graphics reveals some graphics so breathtaking in information design and artistic beauty that it is hard to imagine how they might be reproduced today.”

One of the projects the talented staff of Venngage have embarked on the last month is to retell this history to a wider audience. With research material from the Milestone Project by Michael Friendly, we have created a simplified version of the evolution of infographics and data visualization. We’ve created a static infographic, a video and an interactive version.

The main metaphor used in this design is that of a tree ring. Each each ring or circle represents a time period. The inner ring represent the earliest period and larger and more complex rings are added as time progresses. In order to view this progression, we peel off one ring at a time, starting from the earliest to the latest.

There are 10 rings in total, each with an defined period categorized by significant changes and innovations data visualization techniques.

Ring 1: Pre 1700s: Birth of Maps, Measurement and Graphics

The first ring represents a large period of time before the 1700s. The earliest forms of visualization arose from the first maps (circa 6200BC) to more complex ones to aid in the navigation and description of physical elements. By the early 1600s,  the fundamentals of measuring time, distance, surveying, map making and spacial geometry was beginning to formed and understood. The groundwork was laid and the seeds of visualization began to germinate.


Ring 2: 1700s: Birth of Charts

By the end of this century, most of the modern charts that we know today – the time series charts, line and bar charts had been invented. William Playfair’s seminal work, Commercial and Political Altas, was published in 1786, introducing the world to these new visual forms.


Ring 3: 1800s: Growth of Charts and Visualization techniques

The first half of the 1800s saw an explosion in innovation – many more of the modern forms of data visualization were invented this period: pie charts, histograms, line graphs and time-series plots, bubble charts, contour plots, and so forth. Mapping also progressed into more complex representations such as the chloropleth map and multi dimensional atlases.


Ring 4 & 5 : 1850s+ Golden age of Data Visualization

The second half of the 1800s was the golden age of data visualization. Many more innovations were introduced such as the stacked area charts, the pictogram, 3D charts and the flow chart. Examples such as Joseph Minard’s famous 1869 graphic depicting the Russian campaign of 1812 abound.  This period also saw widespread adoption of these techniques in official state statistical offices.


Ring 6: Early 1900s: Modern Dark Ages

Compared to the previous period, the early 1900s was pretty dormant in terms of innovation. But data visualization continue to be be applied in different fields and began its popularization to the masses.


Ring 7: Mid 1900s: Popularization in Publications

The mid 1900s saw adoption in the mass media. Publications such as Fortunate magazine, Businessweek and Popular Mechanics began to use “infographics” regularly to convey data and complex information. This period also marked the popularization of computer generated graphics using programing languages and software tools in research labs and laboratories.


Ring 8:  Late 1900s – Early 2000s: Acceleration via Computer Generated Graphics

The late 1900s saw an acceleration of computer aided data visualization. With the aid of data visualization software, massive sets of data could be visualized in complex forms, no longer limited by traditional barriers of hand drawn techniques of graphing.  Modern visualization techniques fueled by software flourished, such as network graphs, dendrograms, sunburst charts and chord diagrams.


Ring 9:  2000s: Ubiquity on Internet

The last decade saw an explosion of infographics on the internet. No sector was left untouched by this growth, from sports, to marketing, to the White House. New types of publications emerged in the form of data journalism such as Upshot from NYT and FiveThirtyEight,  to popular appeal. Infographics and its other forms have become one of the defacto content types of the internet.


Ring 10: Present: New Techniques and Tools for the Internet

Today, infographics are evolving from its static image form to a more engaging and interactive format. Examples include interactive infographics tools such as Venngage, animated infographics, video infographics and and explorable big data visualizations.



Here is the full infographic:

The Evolution of Infographics - Venngage

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Circle 1: Pre 1700s: Birth of Maps, Measurement and Graphics
Oldest known map: 6200BC (?)
Proto bar graph: 1350 Nicole Oresme :
Geomagnetic Maps:Le Nautonier’s geomagentic map 1603
Circle 2: 1700s: Birth of Charts
Time Series Chart. Johan Heinrich Lambert  (1779) –
Historical Timeline. Joseph Priestley 1765
Bar chart. 1786 William Playfair:
Line Chart. 1786 William Playfair:
Circle 3: 1800s: Growth of Charts and Visualization techniques
Pie chart. William Playfair. (1801).
Polar-area charts. 1829. André Michel Guerry
Physical Atlas: Cross Sectional Diagrams. 1838
Tableau graphique 1844. Minard
Link: Minard:1844
Circle 4: 1850s+ Golden age of Data Visualization
Map Bubble Chart. 1859 Minard
Stacked Area Charts. 1866 Minard
Flow Chart: Minard. 1869
Joseph Minard’s very famous 1869 graphic depicting the Russian campaign of 1812 –
Tree Maps  1874 Walker, Francis Amasa,
Circle 5: 1850s+ Golden age of Data Visualization Continued
Timetables: Marey 1885
3D Charts. Perozzo. 1880
Movement Graphics 1880s Marey
Pictogram. 1884 Michael George Mulhall
Circle 6 : Early 1900s: Modern Dark Ages
Gantt Chart 1917 Gantt.
Path Diagram. 1920.  Wright.
Proto- infographic/Isotype. Neurath – 1924
London Underground Map. 1933. Back
Circle 7: Mid 1900s: Re-birth and Popularization in Publications
American Productivity. Fortune Magazine. 1946
“Varistrobe” (1957) | Popular Electronics
The Battle of the Atlantic (1942) | Fortune Magazine
Balance of Payments (1950) | Fortune Magazine
Circle 8: Late 1990s – Early 2000s: Acceleration via Computer Generated Graphics
WordClouds. 2002. Flanagan
Motion Charts. 2005. Hans Rosling.
Network visualization
Arc Diagram.
Chord Diagram. 2009. Krzywinski:2009
Circle 9: 2000s: Ubiquity on Internet
Click Bait
Circle 10: Present: New Techniques and Tools for the Internet
Animated Infographics – How handguns work. Jacob O’Neal
Interactive – Venngage. Who is Sia? 6 Questions about Sia



About Eugene Woo

Chief Data Scientist and Cofounder