Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

Data Visualisation and the Modern Imagination

Data visualisations are a language we are accustomed to, a form of communication, which tell us a story: art with a function, as Alberto Cairo stated, “a plural technology (a discipline) that consists of transforming data into semantic information […] through a syntax of imprecise and constantly evolving borders based on the conjunction of signs of an iconic nature (figurative) with others of an arbitrary and abstract nature (non-figurative)” (Cairo, 2011, p. 38). There is a certain magic in these “information graphics” that take advantage of our capacities and ways of processing visual information (Arnheim, 2011). These visualisations build images that are capable of condensing and synthesising trends and patterns of quantitative data, which feed our imagination and expand our knowledge of the world around us.

Maps were one of the first types of data visualisation to be created, and they were developed with enough fidelity to be used as precise navigation tools. After them, in the 18th century, other types of data visualisations, such as bar or line graphs, were invented and their shape has changed so little that we are very familiar with them today. Yet, although there is a long historical trajectory to reach the current level of complexity and sophistication, researchers believe, in general, that it was in the last half of the 19th century when the modern foundations of this discipline were laid. This period is considered the “Golden Age” of data visualisation because this language exploded in a multitude of representations never seen before, coinciding with the development of science, technology and the project of Modernity. A virtual exhibition at the Stanford University Library now shows, through various classic data visualisations, the evolution and importance of this discipline, on the rise today.

”There is a magic in graphs. The profile of a curve reveals in a flash a whole situation — the life history of an epidemic, a panic, or an era of prosperity. The curve informs the mind, awakens the imagination, convinces.” Henry D. Hubbard[1]

Illustration 1.- Eaux de la Seine, by Philippe Buache (Paris, 1770), included in the collection (CC BY-NC-SA License). More information at: https://purl.stanford.edu/gd670qg1056.

The title of the exhibition, Data Visualization and the Modern Imagination, already seems to paraphrase the immortal work of Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus,, in such a way that the visualisation of data would be that modern Prometheus that manages to combine science and art to illuminate, making it possible to see and to imagine (in the sense of forming mental images) complex ideas, spreading knowledge, as a fundamental objective of the Enlightenment project. Through inventions such as the aforementioned bar graph, the timeline or the thematic map, data visualisation helped a new type of imagination to emerge, creating new types of maps that did not represent territories, but ideas and concepts.

This exhibition stems from a collaboration between R. J. Andrews, a San Francisco data storyteller with an engaging work on the history of data visualisation (Andrews, 2019), and the David Rumsey Map Centerwhere a collection of more than 150,000 maps and diagrams is presented, most of them digitised so they can be enjoyed in high resolution. One of the objectives of the exhibition, in addition to showing a part of this copyright-free documentary collection, is to bring this new “quantitative art” to the general public who may have never heard the expression “data visualisation” (although it is probably more than familiar with this art form). The exhibition is formed by six different sections that deal with three main topics: time, nature and people. The visualisations on display cover a time period between 1760 and 1911, so that it is possible to glimpse how the artists who practiced this art supported each other, advancing the discipline in a collaborative way.

“Over this 150-year time period, you can see that dataviz really changes how people see the world and themselves in it. Dataviz helped to provide a more universal view of time — a more universal view of space.” R. J. Andrews[2]

Illustration 2.- Screenshot of the virtual exhibition sections, available at: https://exhibits.stanford.edu/dataviz.

The first, section, entitled “Space and Time”, , like the third, “Exploring Time”, focuses on the same theme: the visualisation of time. On the one hand, it shows how, based on certain conventions of traditional cartography, the passage of time is visualised along an axis, from left to right, in line with the inevitability of the modernist idea of “progress”. Thus, representations of time can be seen in the form of a tree (Chronologie d’Angleterre, by Claude Renaudot, 1781), on a disk (Discus Chronologicus, de Christoph Weigel, 1730), by Christoph Weigel, 1730), through the temporal axes to which we are accustomed (the now classic A Chart of Biography and A Chart of History, by Joseph Priestley, 1765 and 1769, respectively), or through geological maps, where colour signifies the passage of time from one era to another (Palæontological Map of the British Islands, by Alexander Keith Johnston and Edward Forbes, 1850; Map of Vesuvius, by John Auldjo,1833), as well as the expansion of the known world (Overview of Universal History, by Edward Quin, 1830) or the US Civil War sequentially (History of the Civil War, by Arthur H. Scaife, 1897), three-dimensional representations of history in the form of a temple (The Temple of Time, by Emma Willard, 1846) or diagrams of the movement of a horse (The Horse in Motion, by Eadweard Muybridge, 1879) or the evolution of American political parties (Presidental elections by Walter R. Houghton, 1880). Human beings have become accustomed to a linear way to represent time, but it is certainly not the only way.

Efforts dedicated to understanding and explaining phenomena of nature also found a way in visualisations, as shown in the second section, («Nature in profile»), , dedicated to the emerging concept of Nature as a separate idea of Humanity. From the new visual genre inaugurated by Alexander von Humboldt, where profiles of real mountains were juxtaposed within fantastic landscapes, a whole series of images arose dedicated to visually comparing, across the globe, the height of mountains (Comparative View of the Heights of the Principal Mountains in the World, by Charles Smith, 1816), and rivers (Comparative View of the Principal Mountains and Rivers in the World, , by John Lothian, 1846), climate (View of Nature in all Climates, from the Equator to the Arctic Circle, by James Reynolds, 1852), vegetation or types of animals (Illustration of Animal and Vegetable Life of the Different Zones, by George Franklin Cram, 1882; Vertical & Latitudinal Distribution of Animal Life, by JG Bartholomew, W. Eagle Clarke, Percy H. Grimshaw, 1911), which helped both the literacy of the population and the popularisation of science in general and geography in particular.

One of the best-known pioneers of data visualisation is the French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870), who elevated graphics to the category of true art, breathing life into complex data, and getting the French state itself to bet on these thematic cartographies throughout 18 Albums of “Graphical Statistics”. Not only is he the creator of what is considered the best data visualisation of all time (Carte figurative des pertes successives en hommes de l’Armée Française dans la campagne de Russie 1812-1813, 1869), but he invented, for example, flow maps such as the one that can be seen in this exhibition (Carte figurative et approximative des quantités de coton en laine importées en Europe en 1858 et en 1861, 1861) and inspired many of his contemporaries, promoting the evolution and development of this discipline, such as Émile Cheysson (Recettes Brutes des Théâtres et Spectacles de Paris de 1878 à 1889, 1890; Quotidien de Trains sur le Reseau de L’Ouest, 1896) or Paul Vincey (Carte agronomique des environs de Paris, 1897). For this reason, in the fourth section, a play on words is made between cartography and graph to talk about French «chartography» francesa.

Also related with that section, the term statistics has to do with the efforts of modern states to account for the country’s resources, so the first statistical graphs had as their object the components of every state: population, territory and government. And so, the fifth section, entitled “Society and economy”, shows the application of data visualisations with the emergence of social sciences and public health research, but also in the service of the interests of governments, interested in comparing the population and the geographical extent of the countries of Europe (Groessen und Bevoelkerungs: Karte von Europa, by Franz Johann Joseph von Reilly, Vinzenz Georg Kininger, August Friedrich Wilhelm Crome, 1794; Carte statistique représentant l’étendue, la population et les revenus des principales nations de l’Europe, by William Playfair, 1802), ethnographic maps (Ethnographical Map of Europe, by James Cowles Prichard, 1861), the income, expenditures and public debt of a country (Fiscal chart of the United States, by Francis Amasa Walker, 1874), or the crime indices (Crimes contre les personnes, by André-Michel Guerry, 1833). Special mention should be made of the famous mortality flowers of Florence Nightingale (Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, 1859), another of the milestones in the history of this discipline and of nursing by demonstrating the effectiveness of hygienic and sanitary improvements on mortality rates in London military hospitals.

By way of an epilogue, the sixth section (“Slavery to Segregation”) is a kind of response to the Black Lives Matter movement, movement, as a kind of reminder that data visualisations also involve a question of power, as has been seen in the fifth section: data visualisations can also explain the relation between power and governments, they can show the power of a state, but also the impact of slavery and the black population in the configuration of a country like the United States. In this section you can see works that were used by abolitionists to census and map the African-American population (Map Showing The Distribution Of The Slave Population, by Edwin Hergesheimer, 1861; Chart showing the principal constituent elements of the population of each state, as foreign, native, colored, and native white, and as born within or without the state of residence and Map showing in five degrees of density the distribution of the colored population, by Francis Amasa Walker, 1874; Colored population, Ratio to total population, by counties, by Henry Gannett, 1883), to compare the demographic composition of the population of each state (Growth of the elements of the population: 1790 to 1890, by Henry Gannett, 1898), as well as to keep track of the distribution of the population of colour in the United States, sociologically, such as the works of W. E. B. Du Bois (Distribution of Negroes in the United States, 1900; The amalgamation of the white and black elements of the population in the United States, 1900; [The Georgia Negro] City and rural population 1890, 1900), which became a founding text for the later civil rights movement.

Illustration 3.- Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, by Florence Nightingale (1859), a classic of data visualisation, included in the exhibition (CC BY-NC-SA license). More information in: https://purl.stanford.edu/xk972nv1532.

The works on display reveal a feeling that there was a whole growing community of scientists and artists who relied on data visualisations as a tool for exploring and disseminating progress. A growing community that used the advances of colleagues as an incentive to do better jobs, with a certain ethic that today we would call “hacker”, in favour of a greater knowledge of the world in order to transform it, facing the main social challenges. This community of designers interested in social change not only continues to exist today, but is constantly growing [3], facing an interesting field that is gaining more popularity. In the 20th century, technology made it possible to make these visualisations quickly, mechanically and effectively, but losing, along the way, all the artisanal and technical aspects that turned these pieces into works of art. Today, some visualisers such as Mona Chalabi, Stafanie Posavec or Giorgia Lupi take up the power of drawing and artistic forms to represent data, in a similar way to how all these nineteenth-century innovators set out to do so. Data visualisation is a still evolving field, and this exhibit is a helpful reminder.


ANDREWS, R. J.  Info We Trust: How to Inspire the World with Data. John Wiley & Sons, 2019. ISBN-10: 1119483891 ISBN-13: 978-1119483892.

ARNHEIM, Rudolf. El Pensamiento visual. Paidós, 2011. ISBN-10: 8475093779 ISBN-13: 978-8475093772.

BRINTON, Willard Cope. Graphic presentation. New York: Brinton associates, 1939. Available at: http://archive.org/details/graphicpresentat00brinrich

CAIRO, Alberto. El arte funcional: Infografía y visualización de información. Alamut, 2011. ISBN-10: 8498890675 ISBN-13: 978-8498890679.

MASON, Betsy and MILLER, Greg. All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey. National Geographic, 2018. ISBN-10: 1426219725 ISBN-13: 978-1426219726.

PLAYFAIR, William, WAINER, Howard and SPENCE, Ian. Commercial and Political Atlas and Statistical Breviary. Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN-10: 0521855543 ISBN-13: 978-0521855549.

RENDGEN, Sandra. The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard. Chronicle Books, 2018. ISBN-10: 1616896337 ISBN-13: 978-1616896331.

RENDGEN, Sandra. History of Information Graphics. Taschen, 2019. ISBN-10: 3836567679 ISBN-13: 978-3836567671.

ROBINSON, Arthur H. Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography. University of Chicago Press, 1982. ISBN-10: 0226722856 ISBN-13: 978-0226722856.

ROSENBERG, Daniel and GRAFTON, Anthony. Cartographies of Time (1st ed). Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. ISBN-10: 1616890584 ISBN-13: 978-1616890582.

Recommended resources



[1] Text from the preface of the book Graphical Presentation (Brinton, 1939) that is paraphrased in the presentation of the virtual exhibition.

[2] Declarations of the author himself in an article about the exhibition: https://medium.com/nightingale/a-virtual-guided-tour-of-data-visualization-and-the-modern-imagination-1c7a1c2c0bc7.

[3] The Data Visualization Society is an example of how a whole community is growing around these interests, and it can be consulted here: https://www.datavisualizationsociety.com

Recommended quote: CANTÓN-CORREA, Javier. Data Visualisation and the Modern Visualisation. Mosaic [online], November 2020, no. 187. ISSN: 1696-3296. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7238/m.n187.2039

Acerca del autor

Sociólogo y comunicador audiovisual, doctor en Ciencias Sociales, ha trabajado en distintas universidades y medios de comunicación. En los últimos años ha desarrollado su trabajo en Medialab UGR, donde ha desarrollado varias líneas de investigación en redes sociales y pensamiento visual, en las que se enmarcan varios trabajos sobre Instagram y visualización de datos. Actualmente imparte la asignatura de Infografía y Visualización dentro del grado en Diseño y Creación Digitales.

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