Tommy McCall
916,392 views • 5:57

I love infographics. As an information designer, I've worked with all sorts of data over the past 25 years. I have a few insights to share, but first: a little history.

Communication is the encoding, transmission and decoding of information. Breakthroughs in communication mark turning points in human culture. Oracy, literacy and numeracy were great developments in communication. They allow us to encode ideas into words and quantities into numbers. Without communication, we'd still be stuck in the Stone Ages.

Although humans have been around for a quarter million years, it was only 8,000 years ago that proto-writings began to surface. Nearly 3,000 years later, the first proper writing systems took shape.

Maps have been around for millennia and diagrams for hundreds of years, but representing quantities through graphics is a relatively new development. It wasn't until 1786 that William Playfair invented the first bar chart, giving birth to visual display of quantitative information. Fifteen years later, he introduced the first pie and area charts. His inventions are still the most commonly used chart forms today. Florence Nightingale invented the coxcomb in 1857 for a presentation to Queen Victoria on troop mortality. Highlighted in blue, she showed how most troops' deaths could have been prevented. Shortly after, Charles Minard charted Napoleon's march on Moscow, illustrating how an army of 422,000 dwindled to just 10,000 as battles, geography and freezing temperatures took their toll. He combined a Sankey diagram with cartography and a line chart for temperature.

I get excited when I get lots of data to play with, especially when it yields an interesting chart form. Here, Nightingale's coxcomb was the inspiration to organize data on thousands of federal energy subsidies, scrutinizing the lack of investment in renewables over fossil fuels. This Sankey diagram illustrates the flow of energy through the US economy, emphasizing how nearly half of the energy used is lost as waste heat.

I love it when data can be sculpted into beautiful shapes. Here, the personal and professional connections of the women of Silicon Valley can be woven into arcs, same as the collaboration of inventors birthing patents across the globe can be mapped.

I've even made charts for me. I'm a numbers person, so I rarely win at Scrabble. I made this diagram to remember all the two- and three-letter words in the official Scrabble dictionary.


Knowing these 1,168 words certainly is a game changer.


Sometimes I produce code to quickly generate graphics from thousands of data points. Coding also enables me to produce interactive graphics. Now we can navigate information on our own terms.

Exotic chart forms certainly look cool, but something as simple as a little dot may be all you need to solve a particular thinking task. In 2006, the "New York Times" redesigned their "Markets" section, cutting it down from eight pages of stock listings to just one and a half pages of essential market data. We listed performance metrics for the most common stocks, but I wanted to help investors see how the stocks are doing. So I added a simple little dot to show the current price relative to its one-year range. At a glance, value investors can pick out stocks trading near their lows by looking for dots to the left. Momentum investors can find stocks on an upward trajectory via dots to the right. Shortly after, the "Wall Street Journal" copied the design.

Simplicity is often the goal for most graphics, but sometimes we need to embrace complexity and show large data sets in their full glory. Alec Gallup, the former chairman of the Gallup Organization, once handed me a very thick book. It was his family's legacy: hundreds of pages covering six decades of presidential approval data. I told him the entire book could be graphed on a single page. "Impossible," he said. And here it is: 25,000 data points on a single page. At a glance, one sees that most presidents start with a high approval rating, but few keep it. Events like wars initially boost approval; scandals trigger declines. These major events were annotated in the graphic but not in the book. The point is, graphics can transmit data with incredible efficiency.

Graphicacy — the ability to read and write graphics — is still in its infancy. New chart forms will emerge and specialized dialects will evolve. Graphics that help us think faster or see a book's worth of information on a single page are the key to unlocking new discoveries. Our visual cortex was built to decode complex information and is a master at pattern recognition. Graphicacy enables us to harness our built-in GPU to process mountains of data and find the veins of gold hiding within.

Thank you.

(Applause and cheers)