5 Infographics That Changed the World

Originally published at: http://www.sitepoint.com/5-infographics-changed-world/

When you hear the word infographic, you more than likely think about the trend that's emerged in recent years to present information visually on websites.

These vary in the quality of the research that's gone into them and as such, the information they contain. They also vary wildly in how they look and are designed with many marketers and designers consistently coming up with new ideas for making things that little bit more interesting.

The online business community loves a juicy infographic and they tend to do really well on social media — especially G+.

However, infographics are actually nothing new – we've been using visual learning aids for many, many years now.

Maps, for example can be seen as the original infographic and these go back many years into human history (even if we did think the world flat at one point).

With this in mind, let's have a look today at some of the most influential infographics of all time, in no particular order, and what we've learned from them.

#1: Harry Beck's London Tube Map 1931

Beck's Tube Map

When you look at the image above it will come as no particular surprise to learn that Harry Beck was an electrical draftsman whose job it was to create drawings of electrical circuits. He didn't of course have the fancy devices that we do now to help him however, and it was all undertaken manually, with him producing hand drawn sketches.

Beck lived in the city and worked at London Underground when he began the map as an engineering draughtsman, designing the map in his spare time and as an uncommissioned project.

The reception to it wasn't exactly warm in the first instance but in 1933, the London Underground gave in and introduced the map in a small pamphlet. This ran to 700,000 copies and the map proved so popular that another print run had to be done the following month.

Previous incarnations of a Tube map were completely different and relied more on the surrounding streets than the actual tube network itself, as shown below.

An earlier more traditional tube map.

The Tube Map shows how rail lines link together with other lines underground using a system of color coding. This meant that visitors to London didn't have to rely on any local knowledge. The original map only contained 8 lines where now we'd see 14 as the transport system has grown and evolved.

The map is important in design terms for a few reasons.

Firstly, because it broke the mold in terms of how the information was presented. It was and remains highly visual and logical and offered a simple solution to a thorny problem.

By their nature transport maps need to be easy to refer to and make sense of quickly as well as being portable. The color coding system meant that the need for a complex and confusing key was done away with and it's worked so well that it's still found in all of the city's tube terminals today.

It's not particularly easy getting around London, but this map does help to make sense of it (to some extent at least, my own sense of direction is so poor that it confused the heck out of me on my last visit to London, but no doubt it would have been worse without it.)

The best thing about the Tube Map really is in innovative thinking more than anything else. Beck used his experience in creating drawings of electrical circuits to come up with something that others trained in a design discipline might not have.

What can we learn from this as designers ourselves though? Simple. Never be afraid to think about creating a design from all angles, be creative and be innovative as you never know where it might lead.

Beck continued his work on the map until his death in 1964 and despite its success, certainly didn't make his fortune (although it's safe to say that he achieved a certain amount of fame) from it. However, his idea is now used extensively around the world's transport and other systems.

#2: John Snow's Cholera Map

John Snow in Game of Thrones may very well know nothing but the British physician of the same name knew quite a lot. Snow was, according to our friend Wikipedia, " one of the fathers of modern epidemiology" as well as being a forerunner in the adoption of medical hygiene practices and anaesthesia. However, he's best known for his creation of the cholera map in 1854 that ultimately helped to improve health around the world.

In the 19th Century, it was commonly believed that it was 'miasma' or 'bad air' that caused such diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Snow was a sceptic of this idea and believed that such diseases were instead waterborne.

When Snow painstakingly mapped out the all cholera deaths in London it become clear that many of the cases were clustered around a single water pump in what was then Broad Street.

His evidence was entirely circumstantial as at that time it still wasn't understood how germs spread. Despite examining the contaminated water under a microscope, he was unable to prove it this way.

Some of the cases were however not in the Broad street area, but Snow proved that they were affected by the pump nonetheless.

According to The Guardian, Snow wrote that:


In some of the instances, where the deaths are scattered a little further from the rest on the map, the malady was probably contracted at a nearer point to the pump.


Some questioned how a 59-year-old woman victim with no connection to the Broad street area might have contracted the disease.

Snow takes up the story:


I was informed by this lady's son that she had not been in the neighbourhood of Broad Street for many months. A cart went from Broad Street to West End every day and it was the custom to take out a large bottle of the water from the pump in Broad Street, as she preferred it. The water was taken on Thursday 31st August., and she drank of it in the evening, and also on Friday. She was seized with cholera on the evening of the latter day, and died on Saturday.


However not all Broad Street locals were doomed. Brewery workers in the area were noticeably spared. As they received beer as part payment, the workers drank very little water and reported no cholera cases.

Further evidence included buildings in the area which had their own water supply whose inhabitants remained unaffected, including a nearby workhouse. These were institutions in the UK which offered lodgings in exchange for employment for the poor. And that's the kindest of descriptions, so these were places where you might expect disease to be relatively rampant compared to private residences. This wasn't the case though.

Eventually Snow's evidence — and the way in which he presented it — won out. It was later concluded that the Broad Street water had become contaminated by a baby's diaper.

Snow's map is important as it lent new ideas to the way that disease spreads and also how data can be effectively visualized. This wasn't just important to the UK of course, it helped shape how disease is viewed and treated around the globe.

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1 Like

Hi Kes, nice article.
What about the influential Charles Joseph Minard ?

He is most well known for his cartographic depiction of numerical data on a map of Napoleon's disastrous losses suffered during the Russian campaign of 1812.

Check it out the chart right here

Great article, Kerry. Our definition of "infographic" has become quite narrow, it's nice to be reminded that images meant to organize and communicate information go far beyond what we see labeled as "infographics".

Thanks, it was really difficult to choose so I tried to mix it up as much as possible smile I will check it out.

Thanks Ophelie, yes it was very interesting to write I have to say smile

Really, the modern meaning of infographics becomes absolutely different. Now everyone can write text on an image, add a few more illustrations to it, arrows or some graphic elements and it is infographic.

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How on earth did people create such an impressive map for 1940? You can even recognise Europe, Britain and New Zealand.

Infographics are the visual representation of information,data or knowledge.. It gives the summarize information of any huge data in a simple and understandable form..

I love infographics because i'm always time poor! You can spend a few moments on a good infographic and glean the top level points , or spend more time and really drill down into the detail. Only infographics give you a from "at a glance" to "an in-depth" perspective on information. And the best ones are visually pleasing too. The London Underground map is a world beater in this way. Thanks , great article.

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