“So, that’s what this book is. Miscellaneous facts and ideas, interconnected visually. A visual miscellaneum. A series of experiments in making information beautiful. See what you think.” From the author’s Introduction to ‘Information is Beautiful’.
Come the end of each calendar year, as religious types prepare festivals in celebration of the birth of a child actually born around April, and the press dust off stories about Muslims hating Christmas trees, and fat men are jolly as they know, with utter certainty, that they will get back in shape starting January 1st, your local book store also goes through a time-honoured tradition by stocking a number of tomes that review the events of the previous year, or express them in dull statistical lists.
The most recently famous of these, because of its proximity to Waterstones till (and yes, Waterstones should have an apostrophe traditionally, but they changed the name at the start of this year, which makes a kind of sense – it could refer to “Waterstone’s shop” and be a possessive, but now there is more than a single branch it makes a kind of sense to use the plural) is ‘Schott’s Almanac’, a discount collection of information and statistics relevant to the year in which the book was produced. They often collect dry statistics from throughout the year, and present them in a list format for people to briefly glance at then leave on a shelf until their grandchildren pick them up decades later and marvel at the strange days when they still allowed Dutch people into the country and let one of them play, and score, for Arsenal.
However, the great problem with most books that collect lists and graphs of statistics is that they are dull. Ask any pupil asked to create one for their subject in school, and they will agree. Informative they may be, but the information is presented in such a way as to make it inaccessible to anyone born after the coming of MTV supposedly ruined our attention spans.
‘Schott’s Almanac’ was an interesting curiosity, an archaic product released into a market-place already rampaging far off into the distance, which could provide far greater statistical information at a greater pace. It was already more up-to-date, too.
It too shared Ben Schott’s vision: to supply some fascinating data in as boring and cluttered a way as possible. Most of us have been there, on a lazy afternoon, feet up on the sofa, netbook/laptop/iSomething on our laps, possibly overheating a bit and burning the hair, skin and denim from our thighs (note to self: get laptop fan fixed), when we come across a list of the top ten greatest LOLcat videos. Overjoyed, we click the link to find…
On successive pages.
Early in the last decade a comic book writer named Scott McCloud wrote an instructional manifesto on the future of comics called ‘Reinventing Comics’, and McCloud suggested that the Internet was a fantastic tool because it gave a new generation of writers and artists the opportunity to express themselves in ways that they couldn’t previously due to the limitations of illustrating on the page. This idea excited me, because it meant that virtually any idea that could be imagined appearing on the screen could potentially be used to tell that story. Mainstream comics, that had wanted to be films for so long, could appear as large 4:3 ratio images, one panel per page. Independent titles could go more experimental routes. Then there was the notion of sequential artwork itself possibly being subverted by a much more interactive medium, perhaps in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure narrative.
Instead, showing the staggeringly unimaginative obsession with the status quo that has been the hallmark of the age of innovation we are presently living in, comics eventually came to our computers looking exactly like they had always done, and ignoring the limitless possibilities of a new medium in favour of dull standardisation.
But whilst comic books have floundered and failed, in much the same way as mainstream producers and distributors of cinema, television, music and literature, the basic delivery of information in the form of an almanac, for an age of extremely up-to-date information, has seen at least one great revolutionary: David McCandless. His fascinating book looks at subjects that interest him, and, as a consequence could be seen as almost being an autobiography in a time when people are defined more by the products they buy and media they consume than by who they are inside. However, the book also looks at what is inside David McCandless in more detail than perhaps any autobiography in history (considering that he reprints the entire map of his chromosome sequence from page 52).
The chromosome sequence looks like a multicoloured swarm of bugs, gathering on a badly tuned television screen, but it includes labels pointing out important facts, such as indicators for the likelihood of prostate cancer, lactose intolerance, and sensitivity to pleasure. Most importantly, it is colourful, interesting, and fascinating. In other words, everything a list of 2 million letter combinations would not be.
These infographics are a stunning way to render information, and whilst McCandless may fall back on so old standards, such as graphs and pie-charts, they are presented in such a way as to make the discovery and understanding of the information as fascinating as what it means. Graphs can represent multiple things at once, such as films for a certain year by box-office takings, whether they were a financial success or failure based on their original budget, and the level of critical acclaim but together in one graph that can be understood easily at a glance.
Other infographics look at diverse topics such as the most deadly facial hair on the planet, based on the amount of death caused by the famous people wearing it at the time (such as Genghis Khan) presented as a graph which handily features the facial hair; or the colour-coded list of hangover-cures and their ingredients by country, represented as the amounts within the cups that appear on the page, with cocktails on the other page to help get you into a state where you might need one; similarly, there is a double-page on calorie intake, and how to burn them off with simple graphics showing the food, a description and the number, whilst exercises and daily activities gets the same attention, with stark white-on-black silhouettes, description and numbers underneath (hopscotch burns off 185 calories, a visit to the toilet 44); there is a map of popular Internet search terms by country, colourful Venn-diagrams on the lack of rape convictions in England and Wales, and a lovely graph entitled, “What’s Better Than Sex?” based around Google Insights search results (the answer? Since 2007: youtube.com).
The book is a fascinating mixture of things you might want to know, things you didn’t know you wanted to know, things that look pretty that you don’t care about except when you are looking at the fascinating presentation, an insight into one man’s interests, and two ironic pages of text on postmodernism. It is a brilliant and imaginative way of taking interesting facts and turning them into something clever and pretty. The hope is that one day, McCandless’s efforts will inspire a new generation to present many of their own work in a similar fashion. The worry is that we have been here before, as Scott McCloud may testify, and it is so much easier to just go with the industry, social, or cultural standard.
But it is so much more enriching when the information really is beautiful.