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The History of Infographics

November 24th, 2014

Many people think of infographics as a very new online trend. But this ‘trend’ didn’t appear out of the blue. The design of information is as new as paleolithic man. In this article we look at infographics throughout the history, and how they’ve evolved.

Cave Paintings

Paintings of buffaloes, pigs and human hands have been recently discovered in Indonesia. The paintings are thought to be prehistoric and could be 40,000 years old, making them the oldest cave paintings found by man. It is believed that cave paintings were made to communicate hunting methods and show others where to find animals, if this theory is correct it would make them the very first infographics.

aboriginal rock art showing kangaroo beng hunted


Mapmaking has been an important part of the history of mankind. The earliest maps are of the Heavens dating back to 16,500 BC. These are found in the Lascaux Caves in southwest France and map out the night sky. Maps of the world followed as Claudius Ptolemy was the first to make a manual combining math and geometry to teach people how to create maps. These maps then became visual information that everybody could understand.

ancient map of the heavens


The Ancient Egyptians combined drawings derived from cave paintings with hieroglyphs to create the visual representation of information, telling important stories of their time in their own distinct style.


Graphical Statistics

In 1786, William Playfair founded Graphical Statistics. He invented four types of diagrams which we still use today. First he designed the bar and line graphs of economic data. Followed by the pie chart and circle graphs for part-whole relations in 1801. This was perhaps one of the most important discoveries as we still use the same graphs within infographics today.

graphical statistics - the basis of many modern infographics

London Cholera Epidemic

John Snow was a physician largely known for his work tracing the Cholera outbreak in 1854. He combined the map with data to create a dot map which illustrated the cluster of Cholera outbreak around a water pump that he believed to be contaminated. Although the samples of the water were inconclusive, the evidence was enough for the council to disable the pump.Medical researchers still use this method today.

John Snow cholera epidemic map

The Story of Napoleon’s Disaster

In 1869, Charles Joseph Minard drew a figurative map highlighting the losses of men in Napoleon’s French army during the Russian campaign (1812-1813). The illustration is probably the work Minard is best known for and has been described as maybe ‘the best statistical graphic ever drawn’. This is also known as the first graphical timeline.

Minard's graphical representation of Napolean's disaster

Weather Maps

The first weather map was produced in 1875 by Francis Galton. The map was published in The Times and showed the weather from the previous day (31st March 1875). What he created is now a standard feature in newspapers worldwide today.

early weather chart

Otto Neurath 1925, pictograms

Otto Neurath was the man behind the international pictorial language, Isotype a style adapted by many newspapers around the globe. The signs we see today are influenced by Neurath’s work.

Otto Neurath Great War Pictogram

Human Metabolism and Industrial Production

In 1926, Fritz Khan developed visualisation for understanding science and the human body. He envisioned the human metabolism metaphorically as industrial production to educate the layperson. His metaphorical representation has inspired many infographics since.

Fritz Khan Human Metabolism

1982 USA Today

In 1982, newspaper USA Today adopted a full colour, graphic intensive look and are known to be the start of the modern infographic. Many newspapers around the world adopted the same style to report news.

USA Today's new graphic intensive look

So infographics are not the new and exciting conception everyone thinks they are. They have simply been adapted for the digital era. What do you think? Did we miss any of your favourite infographics from history?

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