Data visualization is a perfect medium for the Internet age: it distills dense information into neat, easily digestible graphics. Many contemporary infographic designers look to Fritz Kahn, who worked in the early 1900s, as the grandfather of the modern data viz craze. But it’s a myth that such infographics are a recent phenomenon, as user experience and interaction designer Manuel Lima, author of The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge,explains in this Lunch Talk. The tree diagram, in particular, has its roots in the Middle Ages.
“In Medieval Europe, 800 years ago, visual communication was critical,” Lima says, drawing from his book, which examines the centuries-long history of the tree diagram. “This was a time where people were experimenting with new types of visualizations and ways of representing information.” This led to efforts to systematize the approach to data visualization, and soon, the tree diagram, an “obvious,” intuitive way of organizing information, arose as a popular visual metaphor for classifying knowledge, beginning with charting genealogy as family trees. The model persisted into the 19th century, when Charles Darwin included “The Tree of Life” as the only illustration in The Origin of Species, and on into the digital age.
Lima takes us on a condensed tour through 800 years of tree diagrams. The first image he presents is a tree diagram from the year 1202; the last is from 2012. The similarities in design are remarkable.
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