Sandra Rendgen is an author, consultant and concept developer with a focus on data visualization, interactive media and the history of infographics. She is the author of several books about historical and current developments in the field, most recently History of Information Graphics (Taschen, 2019) and The Minard System (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018). She currently heads the design team at Berlin-based studio Infographics Group. As a visualization strategist, she supports clients in communicating complex knowledge. “Complex,” as in fuzzy, overwhelming, abstract, multidimensional or just plain complicated.

We talk about her books and other writings, as well as the importance of looking back to historical data visualization to help inform our work today.

Episode Notes

Sandra’s books | The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard | History of Information Graphics

WEB Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America | Authors on the PolicyViz Podcast

Jason Forrest on Medium

RJ Andrews | Book: Info We Trust: How to Inspire the World with Data | On Medium | On the podcast

PolicyViz Shop: Thank You notes and historical dataviz postcards

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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish, and on this week’s episode, I am really happy to talk with Sandra Rendgen who’s written a couple of recent books, the biggest one being the History of Information Graphics – and when I say biggest, I mean, really size. I mean, it’s a great book but it’s a Taschen book – if you’ve ever purchased a Taschen book, you’ll know that they’re basically like a mile long and two miles wide. It’s just a huge book but it is a visual feast on the history of data visualization. And she also has a book on Charles-Joseph Minard and his statistical graphics. So I’m really excited to chat with her in this week’s episode. Before I share that interview with you, just a quick note that I’ve added two new things to the PolicyViz shop, the first is a set of thank-you cards that I created kind of out of fun. I mean, they’re all a lot of fun really. It’s just a series of data visualizations on one side of the card with a big old thank you, and on the back side is a definition of the graph with some other sort of watermark graphics in the back. And then I also put out a series of postcards using historical famous data visualizations and, of course, one of those is the Minard Napoleon map. So if you’d like to check those out, please head on over to the PolicyViz shop; and if you use the code PODCAST, you can get 10% off your purchase. So please do head on over to the shop and check that out.

So, as I mentioned, on this week’s episode of the show, I chat with Sandra Rendgen. We talk about her books and we also talk about historical data visualization – more generally, Sandra work along with the recent W. E. B. Du Bois book, Jason Forrest who’s doing a lot of writing about historical data visualization, along with RJ Andrews, and a whole bunch of people. And so we talk a little bit about how, looking back at the history of data visualization, can help us in an era computers and mobile phones and big data, and what it means for us as creators of data visualizations. So I hope you will enjoyed this week’s episode of the show and here is my interview with Sandra.

Jon Schwabish: Hi Sandra, thanks for coming on the show. How are you?

Sandra Rendgen: I’m fine, thank you Jon for having me.

JS: Slowly winding down summertime, getting ready for the fall, and you have had a busy, what, like nine months at least of things coming out in the world, but busier, like, I’m sure, 18-24 months before that.

SR: Yeah, at least. I mean, the whole period of getting things together, of course, stretches back a lot longer. But yeah, two books came out in the past nine months and I am very happy about those two products.

JS: Yeah, that’s great, and I want to talk about both of them, and we’ll also make sure we give people the warning about the Taschen book if they don’t know, if they haven’t bought Taschen books. But maybe we can start – you can talk a little bit about yourself, the work that you do, and then maybe we just slide right into how you got started on… I want to talk about both the books, I mean, if you want to start with the Minard book, we could talk about how you got interested in that one.

SR: Yeah, maybe a little bit of background. I was educated as an art historian, which is a bit, maybe a bit of strange approach to the field, but it makes sense, in that, I was always interested in individuals and how they work, what they could, what they tell us, and what their potentials are. And at some point, I started to get interested in infographics and published two books with fashion publishing before, and those were more surveys of what’s happening in contemporary work, what’s happening in the field, like, right now, the bursts that we’re seeing. And once I got started to look into the field, I also got interested in looking into the history, because what I really noticed was that as we are growing as a professional field, like data viz, the community, and the people who are interested in visual analytics and data visualization; and as this field is growing and growing together from a variety of backgrounds, I felt that there’s a lot of interest and a lot of desire in understanding where this field comes from, where the roots are, and this is sort of what got me started in looking into historical examples. And then very quickly I sort of noticed that that there’s a few highlights and a few milestones and a few heroes that we always sort of sight and that we always look back to, but there’s a feel that the history is much broader and much more colorful and interesting, and there’s much more details to know. And yeah, that’s sort of what got me started and the Minard is a pretty good example, because the one thing or the one example that we all know about and that we always hear about is the Napoleon map, of course, but just sort of the famous graphic that’s always being mentioned when there’s talk about the history of infographics, but this is just one of many, many works, and that’s also the end of his professional and personal evolution in terms of the state of his research. And I knew that there’s that there’s a big collection of statistical graphics that he prepared, that he made over the course of his career, and that those were just hidden, I would always google and try to find something and there would always be just very small thumbnails and you wouldn’t really see anything online or wouldn’t really find anything. And so I thought it would really be worth to go to the archive and dig up all this material, and the whole collection of his works basically, and just try to understand how he got there, and how he arrived at producing this great map and this great graphic, because it’s interesting to understand that the Napoleon graphic is sort of very special within his work, it’s almost the last work that he did out of 60 large format statistical maps, this is one of the last he did, and also it’s a bit different than the other ones he did.

JS: It’s also interesting and I didn’t know this before reading the book that the Napoleon map is kind of like part two of this bigger spread with the Hannibal march at the top.

SR: Yes, exactly. And that is an interesting feature that we can observe throughout his work that he would try to compare situations or compare developments. Sometimes he would compare developments, like a specific dataset, how it evolves over time; or, in this case, he would compare a dataset that is sort of equal like a military campaign that stretches over several months; and then he would compare the Hannibal, which is from antiquity, so way back when we don’t know very much about it, but we have a few raw numbers, and so he compared that with another military disaster, which was way bigger, and that’s the Napoleon. And so, yeah, and what is very important and very interesting is that he constructed both flows, I mean, both the flow maps, that is the format that he developed and that he is famous for, and he constructed both flows to the same scale on the original map. So you can, like, in one glance, you don’t have to calculate or anything, in one glance you could see this is the relation between the numbers that are [inaudible 00:08:08].

JS: Right. Yeah, you can compare the two eras, that is interesting. Can you talk about what the process was like to find the originals and, like you said, I mean, you Google them and you don’t really find a lot, so what was your process like to find the original images?

SR: Yeah, there were a few researchers before me who have done some sort of basic work which was really helpful, like the Canadian researcher, Michael Friendly, he had already put together a list of his work and what I knew from Michael and from [inaudible 00:08:40] French historian is that Minard, he has studied and later taught at one specific technical college of Paris, École des Ponts, the school of bridges and roads, so it’s an engineering college. So he was closely connected to that school for pretty much all of his life, and I knew that they had a comprehensive collection of all of his works. So I knew that from the research that was done before me. So I basically got in touch with them and went to the archive and just looked at all the work, original in paper, which was really, really fascinating and brilliant, because that gives you another very tactile experience of how they’ve worked. I mean, seeing what they did in digital format or reproduced in a book is very interesting and very enlightening, but then sitting there and seeing the actual print that is many – most of them are hand-colored, like after printing, and seeing these technical details and the actual format is really enlightening and really fascinating.

JS: Yeah, that’s really neat. Before we turned to the infographics book, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Tufte’s take on the Minard Napoleon march. So Tufte says it’s the greatest statistical graphic ever drawn. So is that your perspective?

SR: Yeah. Well, first of all, I want to say, it’s really Tufte’s achievement that he made us look at historical pieces. I mean, his books are interspersed with historical examples all throughout, and that’s really fascinating, and I think that many of us are hooked on this topic because of his books, and he also researched a lot of material. Personally, for the quote that you just mentioned, you said probably the best…

JS: Yeah, I think it’s probably the best.

SR: I am always worried to say something [inaudible 00:10:43] the first, it’s always difficult, but it is absolutely stunning and significant and striking. And my take on that is what is really interesting and fascinating is that it shows how Minard had evolved some sort of storytelling skills. That’s my take on it, because, if you look at how his work evolved, he’s tried several, like a variety of different datasets, and he’s tried which datasets you can combine, which makes a useful visualization, some of his works are really cluttered in some way. So he tries several methods over time and then arrives at the Napoleon with skills, and one of that skill is to understand to see how can I form a story out of the whole disaster. Looking at this whole disaster, it’s a very complex story, it’s six months, many, many different army units that have moved in many, many different directions. One could have moved here, back there, they stayed there, they stayed for some time, and then they moved back. So there’s a lot of different movement, and he streamlined that into one statistical variable that he watched over time, and that is very interesting, and that’s why this whole story is so intriguing and telling and striking. And in this respect, I think, it’s very, very interesting and brilliant.

What is interesting in the context of his work is that it’s through him it was sort of – for him, it’s almost sort of casual, because his earlier works, that are more related to transport issues or issues of trade and commerce, and that’s like real data for him, and that’s like he gives us the sources, he tells us how the data is calculated and where he abrogated and what data was missing, for that one, for the Napoleon one, interestingly, he didn’t do that, I don’t know why exactly, I don’t know if it was because he was too old or whether he thought it was like edutainment sort of [inaudible 00:12:55] gives us the books. But if you look into the books, they have tables here and tables there, he must have done heavy calculations to come up with the number, but we don’t see that anywhere really.

JS: But this one feels, like you said, it feels a little bit more like a story.

SR: Yeah.

JS: Because you have this, especially the Napoleon one, you have this, you know, it starts from the left and you sort of follow it and you see this sort of climax point as it gets to the right, and then you kind of turn back around and it says this – it does sort of follow your kind of traditional model of story in some way, but it’s that visual representation without necessarily writing all the words and annotation the way you would in a book.

SR: Yeah, very much. I feel like that his skills were coming together with – it’s a very lucky coincidence of many things, I would say, it’s his skills, it’s his interest in this historical disaster, like, the whole thing was 50 years ago when he did the map the map. But then also the fact that the army was moving eastwards at first is very lucky for him.

JS: Yeah, right.

SR: I think it’s fortunate because this is the classic reading direction, we start in the west and then read towards the east. And when we’re in Moscow, we turn back, and then follow the [inaudible 00:14:19] even more and then follow the temperature along the bottom. So yeah, a lucky coincidence of many, many things, and brilliant storytelling I would say.

JS: Yeah. So let’s turn to the History of Information Graphics book, which I think the first thing that people need to know is that it’s a Taschen book, so it weighs about 400 pounds, and it’s like, [inaudible 00:14:46] so just be prepared.

SR: Yeah, you better be prepared. Yeah, we hope that it makes you dive into, it should be an immersive experience, I guess, that’s the idea behind that.

JS: Well, I want to let you talk about the process and how it was pulled together, but I did also want to ask whether you view it as a book that you think people should read cover to cover, or, was it one of those books, more of like a coffee table book where just open it to a random page and just enjoy the visual and read the text that’s around each [inaudible 00:15:23]?

SR: Oh that’s a good question, I guess, or my hope would be that it enables both. And we took a long time to figure the structure of the book, like, how are you going to tell this story. First of all, I have to say, I consider it as – or the contribution that I want to make is to try to bring a lot of material to our common attention and knowledge. Because, as I mentioned before, I feel like there’s a few heroes that we keep mentioning, and that are certainly important, but I want everybody to know that there’s so much more to discover. And I myself was really surprised to see, you know, at first, I was like, yes, this is the book format that I was trying to fill, it’s a big book, but I’m pretty sure that I’m going to find enough material for the book. What happened during my research was I found material for 10 books this size, there is so much out there, there is so much material that we have and we are not aware of that story, of that history, and this is what I want to make people aware of it, so this is the first contribution that I want to make. There are these heroes that many of us already know, let me quote Nightingale [inaudible 00:16:48] and all these figures, well-known and very important, but there’s so much more, these figures are just sort of the icebergs looking out of the ocean, but there’s so much more.

And as to your question, I mean, the structure is modular, so most of it comes in self-contained pieces. If you can just dive in and look at one piece and there’s going to be an explanation that tells you about this one piece and there’s brief summaries as to the parts. We have chosen a chronological structure, so you can sort of wander from the Middle Ages towards the present, and I would like to mention that I have also invited four experts that have been busy in this field or have been active in research in the History of Information Graphics for various aspects, for many, many years, long before me, and I wanted to include their knowledge towards the book as well, and make readers aware that there’s these experts who have their own collections, so that the readers might go out and go online and find their material as well.

JS: So what was the process like for this one – so for the Minard book, you were able to go and pick out the original materials – but this one is a lot, I mean, a ton… I don’t know the total count of graphs in it, so what was that process like?

SR: Yeah, it just was a bit less concise or a bit less concentrated that just stretched over many years. I mean, I had the idea of doing this book a long time ago, and then Taschen and I talked about doing it, whether it would be feasible. And then as time went by, which is go and look for stuff, how do you say, if you have your attention focused on that you find things everywhere and then you start collecting, and this is what I did over many years, not many but five years, continuously trying to find things in very different contexts. It’s very interesting, once you start looking for things, you find examples in the most weird places, and in the most weird contexts. For instance, there’s a historical infographic made by the Berlin – I live in Berlin – so there’s a Berlin Metro subway company [inaudible 00:19:20] and they have shown two historical infographics that come from an annual report that they made back in the late 20s, and they just have it up on the wall, very big on one station. And once I walk by there and I was like, hey, look at this, what is this. And so this is sort of, once you have your attention clicked on, turned on, then the pieces also come to you, people will show you stuff, send your stuff. And so it’s been a very long collection process. And so this is the first part, and then, of course, the second, even more difficult part is to make a selection from that. And I have to mention what has really helped the process is that we are in the middle of the digitization process and many archives and many libraries are putting their stuff online. So many, many libraries have searchable collections online and that has really helped. I couldn’t have done this without this, like, 10 years ago, it would have been much more difficult.

JS: Well, I have it on my desk at home, and so I had to clear off a whole section of the place. So both of these books are looking at historical visualizations. And so there has been, I think, like you mentioned earlier, a bit of a refocusing or more attention paid to some of the historical work, so there’s the boys’ book that came out I think last year, Jason Forrest has been writing a lot about it. RJ Andrews has his book out that has a lot of historical looks. And I’m curious, aside from the basic inspiration and also seeing the different techniques, I wonder how you think about knowing more about the historical visualizations helps us today when we’re designing interactives and we’re worried about mobile phones.

SR: Yeah.

JS: So when you think about these books and the other work that people are doing, and people who are making modern visualizations, how do you think about linking those two together?

SR: I mean, technology is certainly an aspect that sort of separates us, or, for many, that feeling has evolved that the technologies that we have now sort of separate us from anything that has happened before in print or whatever. But my take on that is that it’s mostly about a sort of critical education in our minds, that’s what I guess is most important about it. Because when you look at historical works, many things will look strange to us, and this is a good thing, because then you have to think about who did this, why does this look so strange, what did they try to achieve; also things like, who paid for this, was it self-initiated or did someone commission that work, what is the message, what is the underlying, what is the thought behind it. And I think it’s engaging with historical works that we trained to ask these questions. And you are aware that there’s been a lot of talk lately in the data viz community about fostering a culture of criticism, and a culture of critically judging works but also giving candid feedback, constructive criticism. And I think for acquiring a critical mindset like that, it’s really enlightening to engage with historical works, just because it opens your perspective, it opens your mind, because for many works that we see that, you know, contemporary work like today, with many of these, we share basic values, basic aesthetics, basic principles and stuff. With historical works, that is not always given, so I understand it’s a very good training for us to, yeah, develop a critical mindset for looking at work.

JS: Yeah. I also find it interesting how people sometimes take these historical, especially the famous historical ones and they remake them in the modern tools. And I wonder whether you’ve given any thought to that, like, is that merely a technical exercise or is there more to it than that, because I do wonder whether people then have to think more carefully about the visualization rather than saying, oh the Minard graph goes left to right and then right to left and [inaudible 00:23:44]. But you have to dive a little bit deeper if you’re going to remake something.

SR: Absolutely. I mean, the whole method of redesigning things or remaking things, I mean, redesigning something different than just recreating things, but I think it always makes people understand how things came together or understand how some design choices were made and why they may have been made like that or may have been made, was there any other choice than doing it this way or that way. So I guess there’s absolutely a good point in doing that, yeah, and certainly, it’s right, your question is good, because it’s certainly even more intense than just looking at it and just talking about it, it’s different when you actually have to recreate it or find another solution for saying the same thing, and you will understand the tricky parts behind it. So yeah, absolutely.

JS: Yeah, that would be an interesting project for like Makeover Monday or the Tiny Tuesday projects, like remake Minard’s map and [inaudible 00:24:49] yeah, that would be fun.

SR: Yeah. And I guess, it’s probably two-part to be really enlightening, to first really look at the thing, that’s an interesting point that when I teach, I sort of torment my students with having to look at the same graphic for a very long time. It’s something that I had to do in my art history classes back in university, like, our professors would make us look at the same painting for an hour, and I would be like, can we just [inaudible 00:25:22] I’ve seen this now. But it’s so enlightening and it’s so, you know, it always gets you somewhere and I’m doing this with graphics as well, and I think this is something that we don’t do enough, really take the time to analyze a piece. And this is always for me the first part, when looking at a historical piece, like, for instance, with the Minard Napoleon map, like, understand where did you get the data from, did he have to calculate them or were they somewhere. And it turns out, he must have calculated them, but he doesn’t talk about it anywhere. Things like that. And understand and analyze that first and then try to remake something or recreate something. And so, that would be very enlightening too.

JS: Yeah. So you have, I don’t know, hundreds of historical graphics that you’ve looked at, and is there one that you can pick out as your favorite or maybe a top five? I will make it easier if I give you a top five.

SR: Yeah, so I have – no, it’s always, always so difficult, but I’ll give you an unexpected one. One that I’m really in love with is it’s a parchment roll from the year 1200 AD roundabout. We don’t know exactly when it was from, the parchment roll itself is in the Harvard library today, and it’s seven meters long or something. It’s got a fold out in the middle ages chapter of the book, and it’s just this absolutely crazy genealogy, it’s got bubbles and then the bubbles are connected with each other; and within this genealogy, it tells basically the biblical story from Adam and Eve, all the way down to Jesus; and then it has all – it has little texts in them and little icons in the bubbles. And I’m just absolutely intrigued by how the theologians of the time managed to condense the very intricate theological Christian story into this whole parchment roll. And then what is also interesting in that is it wasn’t copied in this or that many examples or copies, it was printed. So this is unique, this thing is unique, and then somebody else would copy it by just making a manual copy and then making little adjustments. So from the examples that we have, every piece is a little different.

JS: A little different, yeah. That is [inaudible 00:27:55] so you could see the evolution, more or less, kind of the evolution of the piece.

SR: Yeah, very much so. And this is a special thing with the manuscript culture back in the Middle Ages, this is something that we, you know, for me it’s really hard to wrap my head around this, because we’re so used to standardization and print and exact copies and that just didn’t respect that.

JS: Right. That’s great. Well, I’ve enjoyed both the books, I’m only ankle-deep in the Information Graphics one, but yeah, they’re great. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been really interesting talking about this.

SR: Thank you so much Jon, I really hope that you enjoy the book even further.

JS: Yeah, great.

SR: Thanks so much for inviting me.

JS: Yeah, my pleasure, thanks so much.

And thanks to you all for tuning in once again to this week’s episode. I hope you enjoyed that discussion. I hope you will check out these books. They’re really great. In the History of Information Graphics, you’re going to have to carve out some space on your bookshelf to put it there, but it is a beautiful book, as I mentioned earlier. So if you’d like to support the show, please do share it with folks, please put a review on iTunes or Google Play or wherever you like to listen to the show. And if you’d like to support the show financially, please head over to my Patreon page; just for one or three bucks a month, you can support the show; and you can also get a lovely PolicyViz Podcast mug for your morning coffee or tea. And that really wraps up this week’s episode, I’ve got more coming for you over the next few months, I’m really excited with some of the guests that I have lined up for you. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz Podcast. Thanks so much for listening.