Part 11 in a series on global information design explores the forms and themes of lineage diagrams

Detail from an early 17th-century engraving of the Habsburg family tree by the Dutch engraver Aegidius Sadeler II. The diagram starts at the bottom with the lineage growing from Rudolph I, the German king and Holy Roman Emperor crowned in 1273.

We connect the present to the past through the concept of lineage. Diagrams of these connections evoke a special power, the ability of people in the present to invoke and materialize powers from the past. Our “relatives” are the people whose social relationships we recognize and invoke to support our names. By extension, our concept of ancestry plays a role in our present social position, whether we think of ourselves as an individual person, the member of a group, and the subject of a nation.

Genealogy relationships are among the most common features in oral and written literature throughout the…


In an online talk for the Design Museum, Paolo Ciuccarelli and I spoke about how the rhetoric, aesthetics and techniques of data visualizations are being used to communicate messages about our current public health crisis to a wide variety of audiences. Visualizations of the COVID-19 pandemic have touched all of our lives and this explosion of visual language is important in many ways. For one, the sheer volume of visualizations have stretched the creativity and ingenuity of data visualization designs to new extremes. The range of visualization types from streamgraphs to heatmaps to dumbbell charts, is unprecedented. For another, it…


An examination of the original diagrams by Charles-Joseph Minard, and related materials by Léon Lalanne and Émile Cheysson in the ENPC Archives

The author at ENPC library, opening a mounted diagram from the Cartes figuratives (1853–1863) box. The Tableaux Graphiques et Cartes Figuratives par M. Minard portfolio is open in the foreground.

NOTE: In the interest of consistency, throughout this essay I identify Minard’s diagrams using the number (preceded by #) and English name assigned by Sandra Rendgen in The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard [1], along with their French titles.

The Man and the School

I wanted to visit and touch a Minard. I have seen his work reproduced in many books. I have copied digital images of Mindard’s drawings from library websites and used them in presentations. I have assigned graduate students to study Minard and do presentations about his work for my information design history seminar. I have studied writing…


Part 10 in a series on global information design, the last in a series on Transportation Diagrams

3.3 Urban Transportation

Recettes Kilométriques des Tramways et du Chemin de Fer de Ceinture de Paris, 1888 (Receipts per kilometer from the Trams and Paris Belt Railway), Atlas de statistique graphique de la ville de Paris, Jacques Bertillon, 1889. This data visualization was for administrators, not for travels. Note how it uses the size of the line to represent the quantity of riders (receipts) per line, a visualization technique pioneered by Charles-Joseph Minard.

As European and North American cities grew in the 20th Century, transportation diagrams for urban networks became important to daily life. The urban population often worked in one part of the city and lived in another. Rail and boat carried the materials that kept the city alive. City transportation networks became a collection of boat ferries, horse-drawn trolley lines, and steam-powered trains. The growth of railroads brought with it advances in tunnel engineering and suspended rail lines in Europe and the United States. Trains began running under London streets in 1863 but it was several decades before electric-powered engines made…


Part 9 in a series on global information design, the third of four on Transportation Diagrams

3.2 Sea and Air

The overland traveler is oriented by the physical path to the next destination, recognizable landmarks, cardinal directions and an expected relationship between time traveled and distance covered. Travel on the ocean, beyond the sight of land, presents a very different set of problems. With the absence of landmarks, what is left to read are cardinal directions, the location of stars (when weather permits), and the passage of time.

Placing a Grid on the Sea

The information design of sea charts is tightly connected to two major influences: support for a pilot’s navigation tools and ways to represent open space. …


Part 8 in a series on global information design continuing the history of road transportation diagrams

3.1 Transportation On the Road, Part 2 (catch up on Part 1)

Visualizing the 18th and 19th-Century Postal Web

Nicolas Sanson, who designed the first map of France’s postal network, is recognized today as the father of French cartography [1]. He began drawing maps in his hometown of Abbeville. His depiction of France’s network of post roads was published in Paris in 1632 by the engraver Melchior Tavernier who, omitting Sanson’s name, gave himself credit for the work. Sanson later relocated to Paris and took back control of the plates. The map was included in his Atlas du Monde (1668), which covered Asia, Africa, and the Americas as well as Europe.

Carte géographique des postes qui traversent la France (A geographic map of the post roads that traverse France), 1632, Nicolas Sanson and Melchior Tavernier. Green lines indicate the boundary of French political control. The post reaches outside the kingdom to Turin, Balle (Basil), Bruselles (Brussels), and London.

Postal roads were the kingdom’s information highways. Tavernier…


Part 7 in a series on global information design exploring the history of road transportation diagrams

3.1 Transportation on the Road

All forms of transportation diagrams, regardless of the type of travel involved, are designs that assist the viewer to perform a universal task: getting from here to there. The purpose of the visualization is to support travel decisions. It is not so much a question of the technology as it is where the transportation takes place. This post will look at the history of visualizations for overland travel. The posts that follow will examine sea and air travel, and how we find our way through urban transportation networks.

Transportation diagrams are visually distinct from geographic maps. As the following examples…


Part 6 in a series on global information design exploring historic maps that represent ways we view the city

Plan de Pondichery (Union Territory of Pudacherry, India), 1741, Kalakriti Archives. This map of the capital of French India was created by an anonymous military engineer, showing the French residences inside the city wall. The regularity of geometric shapes resembles other Enlightenment-era French city plans. Letters identify military defense positions along the walls. Numbers identify churches, gardens, markets, parade grounds and cemeteries. There is no representation of the Indian town outside the fortifications where the vast majority of the city’s population resided.

2.3 City Maps

Polis is the Greek word for a city-state, a self-governing place, a densely populated urban area. The City Map is a polis diagram. When it is created by or for the ruling group it describes an agreed-upon image of the place. The intention may be to share this view, to boast about or advertise its grandeur and achievements, to identify what the city is and delineate what it is not. …


Part 5 in a series on global information design explores historical maps that superimpose political influence onto physical space

2.2 Kingdom Maps

A Kingdom Map superimposes political influence onto physical space to represent that part of the world within a government’s control. Its function is to show us the shape and extent of how “our” territory is separate from “their” territory. We see the adjacent lands that are not ours, often without detail, but we do not see what lies far beyond.

While we find visualizations of the known world in many cultures, the examples of visualizing kingdoms cluster around Western territorial aspirations. That image of “our” territory is compelling when it expresses a sense of wholeness, a coherent imperial space without…


Part 4 in a series exploring global information design looks back at some of the earliest maps of the world

A map is a diagram of a place. It shows us the physical relationships among the details. A map locates things we can touch and see — man-made structures, rivers, roads, lakes — in relation to one another. A map can be an effective representation of a place whether or not it applies a consistent mathematical “projection.” A map can be based on any number of visual rules, independent from the rules of contemporary cartography.

While a map is structured around things we can touch and see, the representations on the map are not meant to be the things themselves…

Paul Kahn

Lecturer Northeastern Univ, IA and UX at Kahn+Assoc, Dynamic Diagrams & Mad*Pow. Hypertext research & information design, books: Mapping Websites, UnderStAnding

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