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Data by Design: An Interactive History of Data Visualization 1786-1900

It is often said that “the purpose of data visualization is insight: to produce the kind of “ah ha moment” in the mind of the viewer when something snaps into focus that was previously too difficult, too distributed, or too complex to otherwise see. For those who design data visualizations, however, insight comes about through a process that is far longer and more hard-won.

This lesson came home to our project team in the waning days of summer 2021 as we iterated on the design for the front page of this site. Ever since the first prototype of Data by Design, there had always been a prominently-positioned timeline to welcome visitors to the site—first an actual line, then illustrated with images, and then a more designerly version that arranged each year’s images into artfully arranged stacks.

It all made sense: this project has a distinct chronological arc. It looks at how ideas from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the concept of data had just begun to crystalize, inform today’s world in which we generate data with our every waking moment (and sometimes even with our sleeping ones). And it explores examples from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the idea of visualizing data was itself an innovation, connecting them to the present moment in which anyone with an internet connection and an account on any number of software platforms can go from data to chart in a series of clicks.

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