This talk considers how some of the basic diagrammatic forms in use today – the pie chart, the bar graph, variants of Isotype, and others – originated as vehicles for social and political communication to the general public. It also examines their present-day use, with reference to a project undertaken by design students at Emily Carr in Vancouver.
The discussion begins in the mid-18th century with the work of William Playfair, who developed some of the earliest standardised formats for showing concrete information, such as circle, pie and bar charts, which were developed for communicating social science data. In the 19th century, another landmark occurred with Florence Nightingale’s ‘coxcomb’ diagrams on rates of mortality in the Crimean war (1858), which aimed to convey information from a pragmatic, empirical perspective to the general public. Later on Isotype, developed by the social scientist Otto Neurath in the intellectual climate of interwar Austria, grew out of a desire to meet new social needs and to gear visual communication to the demands of popular education and social reform.
Today, the many variants in our lexicon of diagrammatic forms are used in the news media and online. They appear as illustrations to articles, within newscasts, and embedded in complex ‘infographics’. Are we making the most of these forms? What are some of the current ‘best practices’ around diagrams used for social science data today? With these questions in mind, Katherine will showcase a student project aiming to convey complex environmental and sustainability issues to the general public.