In this interview with Sandra Rendgen, you can find out about the influential work of Charles Minard, one of the most important early influencers in the field of data visualization.
(calm music) - All right, so I'm really excited now to be speaking with Sandra Rendgen, who is an author and an editor who focuses on data visualization and interactive media. Sandra, thank you for joining me, and welcome. - Thank you, Bill. I'm so glad to be here with you and thanks for having me. - So looking at your blog, I came across a whole bunch of interesting posts about historical data visualization from covering Florence Nightingale's coxcomb plots and a really interesting piece on the 1855 organizational diagram of the New York and Erie Railroad Company, to a piece on auto neurath and many others, and I guess I wanted to first just start off by asking you, what interests you about historical data visualization? - Well, first of all I have to say I was trained as an historian, so I guess you know, historical things interest me per se, but what is interesting in historical data visualization is that for me, that I feel that our knowledge is really fragmented there.
We know some masterpieces and those are repeated again and again, but there's so much more to discover and as soon as I started looking into that, I felt like this is an open-ended ocean really of interesting works, and this is the one thing that I feel like there's so much that we can discover and learn, and the other thing is for me that I really want to look into what are the situations and what are the tasks that make people create visualizations? And those are really varying.
If you go through the history and go through the centuries, even, there's many different situations where people take to visualization to explain something, to communicate something, or to clarify something, and that is really interesting for me, this set out, what makes people create a visualization? - Yeah. I like the way you refer to it as this ocean, 'cause it also, it seems to be particularly a very unexplored ocean. You know, like you said, there's a few of the masterpieces that keep coming out, but there's so many unknowns.
So in your travels through that ocean, what are some of the most, let's say surprising things that you've come across, you know, interesting examples of visualizations, historical references, et cetera? - Well, as I mentioned before, the one thing that really puzzled me and keeps puzzling me is the more I get into that, is the sheer quantity of works that have come down to us, that have been handed down to us in the libraries, in the archives, and so digitalization helps a lot because you can now research online and on the web, and if you start digging into that, you find so many interesting things.
And what puzzles me often is that looking for visualizations, you often look into completely unknown worlds, like thoughts and sciences or research trends that we don't have a clue of, and so that really makes you go down rabbit holes, that which is really interesting, right, because you find people who explain theories using a visualization, you find people who even create rather weird things that have never been scientifically, scientific standard or something like weird theories of the earth that were religiously motivated, for instance.
And even those people resort to visualization as a tool for them to communicate that knowledge. And that keeps puzzling me, and it's really interesting and it keeps me going and doing that work, I have to say. - Yeah, that makes sense. In those travels, have you come across any historical figures who are doing visualizations like the you're describing that have surprised you, that have come out of nowhere, maybe some underappreciated figures from history who do, have done some of this work that you're talking about? - Yeah, what is really interesting period in this whole history of data visualization in this larger history, is the 19th century as a whole, and there was a whole, as I mentioned earlier, we know a few master works, but there's a whole movement actually, it's beginning in the early 19th century in the 1820s, and then it grows.
And that's specifically in France, also in England, several European countries but there's a center in France, and so there's a few people who are doing really interesting work there and one person in France that is really known only in specialized historian circles and not known enough to the general audience is Andre-Michel Guerry, who did a lot of work in statistics, and in statistical graphics, and another person is Francis Galton, who was a British research scientist, and he has worked in many different fields.
He did research about the weather but also about heredity charts, heredity patterns. And for all these research trends that he worked in, he created different visualizations, and we don't know enough about these people, really, and also about the larger circles of people in which they operated. - Yeah. So I imagine we're going to circle back to some of those names in a moment, but let's talk now. We're in the 19th century, we're in France, let's talk about the big guns.
So you wrote the book "The Minard System," about Charles Minard, probably one of the biggest figures in data visualization, historical visualization. A really amazing book, and you got to visit the archive at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees, and I can't imagine what that experience must have been like, and I have one really specific question, which is how large are these pieces that Minard created, just very briefly, 'cause you know, your book was gorgeous, I loved it, and it was big, it was large format, and I only wished it was five times the size so I could really pore over those visuals.
So yeah, how big are they on average? - Yeah, on average they're something like I have to say it in centimeters because I'm in Europe over here, it's about 50 centimeters wide and 70 centimeters high. So they're really like, I mean I can't really show it here on the video but the really large format, five times the book would have been perfect to cover that, really. - Yeah. - So, I was happy that we managed in the book and we managed to find a format that was still, you know manageable as a book, as a book that you can buy and carry away, but still show enough detail from the maps, because there's so much detail in these maps that is really important or interesting to discover.
I mean, it's all these details that make this, that make these works fascinating, right? And often, there's also text along the sides which is also really interesting to discover. Unfortunately, in French of course, but there's so much interesting information also that he gives about how he created these charts, about how he found his data, and so yes, it was, to come back to your original question, it was fascinating to go to the archive.
It was really great. Unfortunately some of those maps are pretty worn, but it's also really good, you know, what is good about going to the archive and seeing the originals is it makes you think about the technology, about technical aspects. We are very used to consuming everything in digital form, and to go back and see these maps in original really makes you think about okay, how do we, how did he do that, how did he draw that, how did he get this printed and how, you know, how did it take this form or this shape that it has in the end? And so what he did was he printed all of this as lithographs, and so this is a new printing technique in the 19th century, and then most of those maps, most of his maps, what I found really mind blowing is most of his maps are hand colored.
So there was actually somebody, we don't know if it was himself, he himself or whether he had, you know, help, but there was somebody sitting there and actually painting these maps according to the color code that he had set up, and this is one very interesting part, and then there's a few maps that were apparently printed in color, and those have a very different color scheme, and those things are very interesting to see on the maps, on the originals because that's when you start thinking about those things too, and that's very important throughout the history, to understand which tools people had at hand to create their visualizations.
- Absolutely. So you also have a new book coming out, and you know, I really love the idea of it, "The History of Information Graphics" which covers a lot more ground as I understand it. Hundreds of years and hundreds of examples and I'm really looking forward to seeing it. In fact, by the time this is out, the book may be out because I know it's imminent. So give us a preview, tell us a little bit about that book and what's covered in it. - Yes, so what I really wanted to do with that book is to give a broad overview. It's referring to what I said earlier, that there's so much out there that we can discover and that history is not just reduced to a few masterpieces, so what we're trying to do is to put together sort of chronology really from the Middle Ages up to the year 2000, so that makes some 1,200 years of information graphics.
And we have that structure in four chapters, like four eras, and then I'm very happy that I had four very specialized contributors and experts who also contributed to the book, and that is David Ramsey who is collecting historical maps, that is Michelle Schtoll, who is a German collector of historical infographics, and Michael Friendly, a Canadian psychologist who has researched the history of data visualization, and Scott Klein who's an American journalist.
And all these people have an incredible collection of historical infographics, and do have a chapter of their own in the book where they write about their collection and about their motivation and show which is most important, show some work from their incredible collections, and so that's going to be the backbone of the book. - That's great. Actually now Michael Friendly has been referenced twice because we, in my lesson on this theme, I referenced his timeline of visualization so that's perfect. So if we could just bring it back home here, you know, this is for the LinkedIn audience, this is for people who are practitioners.
They do data visualization all day long, every day perhaps, some of them maybe aren't those regular producers of this work. People who are experts, people who are non-experts, et cetera, and one thing I'd like to help ask you to bring home is all of your thinking about the history, 1,200 years of history of this type of work, what have you learned that you might share with people doing this work? What do you find in the history, in addition to the tools, that you mentioned earlier, what do you find in that learning that might be applicable to people doing this type of work in today's reality? - Yeah, what really thrilled me when I began looking at this as the notion that our history does not only consist of master works, but there's a lot of smaller works, awkward works, sometimes works that are straight at fault by today's standard, but what is really impressive is this constant trial and error that our forefathers have done, and I think this is really important because this is, I see that in our today's, like in today's practices as well.
There's so much trial and error that needs to be done to create new things, and this can be really frustrating but it's really worthwhile to keep going and to keep trying new things, because first of all, a lot of great projects come from that, you know, stem from that. Also in the history, but also in today's work. And it's important also in building our common knowledge. I feel that all this trial and error in the history has helped to build the knowledge that we have today and you know, the trial and error that we're doing today helps to build our future knowledge.
So yes, we have to keep on going even if it's difficult or frustrating sometimes. - That's great. Yeah, I love that, that sort of point to wrap this up because innovation requires experimentation, experimentation includes failures, and failures will lead to tangents which will lead to successes and that's a great lesson for our viewers I think to take away from this. So thank you for reminding us of that, and I really appreciate you joining me for this conversation today, thank you Sandra.
- Thank you so much, Bill, for having me, it was a pleasure.