The Infographic History of the World

By Greg Stevens on August 11th, 2013

This is not a collection of good infographics. The authority on graphs and infographics is Edward Tufte, and anyone who is interested in reading a book filled with examples of excellent, informative and well-executed graphs and infographics should read his book The Quantitative Display of Visual Information.

That book also outlines several guidelines for infographics. According to Tufte, for example, a good infographic: (a) conveys information in a clear and obvious way, (b) contains no wasted ink (or colour) that is not used to convey information, and (c) never has “bells and whistles” that are more interesting than the data itself.

The majority of the infographics in The Infographic History of the World break all of these rules.

Occasionally there are well-executed and well-conceptualised infographics in the book. For example, the “poppy diagram” of conflicts since 1900 that have claimed more than 10,000 lives is excellent. This graph displays a very large amount of information in a clear and elegant way: along a horizontal timeline, each conflict is shown as a flower growing upward.

The stem of each flower starts when the conflict started, ends on the year that it ended, the size of the flower shows the number dead, and the colour of the flower shows the continent or region where it took place. The graph is easy to read, easy to explain, and there are no variables that are meaningless and “just for show” on the page.

The Infographic History of the World, by Valentina D’Efilippo and James Ball.
£12.80 from Amazon.

But this graphic is the exception, not the rule. The worst offender in the book, although I admit it has plenty of competition for this title, is the “Mona Lisa” timeline of visual art. It is completely incomprehensible. In an effort to “fit” data about art history into the shape of a crude “colour-by-numbers” representation of the Mona Lisa, the authors had to shoehorn colours, wiggly patterns, dotted lines of different thicknesses, and numbers into various shapes that contributed nothing at all to the information being displayed.

The most embarrassing feature of the entire graph is that the authors clearly realise it is incomprehensible: they spend the entire page opposite the graph decoding and explaining how to read it. They even had to include six thumbnail sized variations of the graph,  apparently necessary to make clear what the main graph could not.

Not only is the book not a collection of good infographics, it is also not a good history book. Setting aside the question of whether “history of the world” is a feasible endeavour for a 218 page book, histories are first and foremost stories. Well-written histories are those that elucidate cause and effect, motivation and purpose, and larger practical or moral themes. A history is not a  hodge-podge of trivia slammed together in loosely-connected chapters based on topic area.

Nobody will ever read this book. In fairness, this is not the type of book that is meant to be read. Like most books you find on coffee tables or in the crapper, it is meant to be opened at a random page, glanced over, perhaps flipped through for  30 seconds, and put down again. If during that time you have smiled, then the book is as much of a success as it ever aspired to be.

If that is the kind of book you happen to be looking for, then you might consider it chic. Otherwise, sorry. No.