Transforming Factories of the Human Body to the Quantified Self and all Fake News in between

A tidal wave of data is bearing down on us. All our appliances continuously produce, collect and share the most trivial and detailed information. We assume that analysis will lead to a better understanding of our surroundings and a more efficient use of time, money and resources. The quote ‘data is the new oil’ echoes around the world as the amount of data keeps growing rapidly (it doubles every two years).

It was UK mathematician Clive Humby (the evil genius behind the Clubcard) who spoke these words in 2006 and continued “Data is valuable, but has to be refined to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals etc. To create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity, data must be analysed.” Visualising data is essential in order to make it valuable. In the future, will we become as dependent on data visualisation as we were on oil in the previous century?

Around the same time of Humby’s statement, Al Gore launched his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Armed with infographics and charts he tells a convincing story about climate change to a large audience. A successful strategy that was devised over 80 years ago. The rise of mass media in the 1920s led to a growth in available information and changed the way people communicated. Viennese economist and museum director Otto Neurath found that everyone, especially the average man, needed to be able to understand how society works. His motto “words divide, images unite” led to a method that presented information in a more appealing way, and made it easier to comprehend. Neurath’s International System of TYpographic Picture Education added stories to graphs and charts. Neurath developed the notion of the ‘transformer’ to describe the process of analysing, selecting, ordering and then visualising information, ideas and implications.


Our brain can understand images very quickly. Sets of numbers mean nothing to us, but patterns provide us with valuable insights. Another good way to clarify complex processes are visual metaphors, which is what German doctor and scientific writer Fritz Kahn discovered in the late 1920s. As some sort of art-director, he had illustrators visualise the human body as a machine in his five-part opus magnum Das Leben des Menschen. “Maybe not always a 100% accurate, but a 100% understandable”, according to Kahn.

What happens to our brain when we see a car? (uit Das Leben des Menschen)

ISOTYPE visualised society in a pictorial form, whereas Kahn provided a mechanical view of the human body. Slowly but surely more and more designers aspired a universal visual language. An idiom of icons arose that didn’t all look exactly the same, but people could still understand. In the 60s, the idea grew that a visually appealing image creates an emotional connection, which is quite essential if you want to influence behaviour or thoughts.

The internet, especially the introduction of the first smartphones in 2007, put our society on a digital fast track. Transformers became information architects and then visual storytellers. People still wish to better understand their bodies and surroundings. Graphic designers are essential in making Big Data applicable. With data visualisation, infographics, instructions and cartography, they shape valuable products we use on a daily basis. We trust designers for their visualisation of business management, political arguments, journalism, climate change, navigation, gaming, or the use of expensive appliances. Everything we do, even our personal health, can be tracked through dashboards of the Quantified Self.

Fitbit dashboard

Museums and media sporadically showcase this kind of functional design, but this doesn’t do justice
to the current use of information graphics. The demand for good information graphics is increasing, but the number of designers specialised in it isn’t growing as quickly as the amount of information that’s available.

Images are convincing, but not every graph tells the truth. Our opinions or behaviour are influenced without giving a moment’s thought to the source or messenger. Have a close look at the charts Thierry Baudet (Dutch politician) uses during debates or the infographics Colin Powell used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Until recently, Information was considered the most democratic instrument to exercise power. The rise of Fake News shows that we think we understand images very quickly, but there’s a lot to learn about the quality and impact of information visualisation. The visualisation of information or data can be used for good and evil! We trust designers to carve order out of chaos, providing an overview of complex matters or speaking to our emotions. Designers visualise urgent issues so we can understand them quickly.

INFORMATION SUPERPOWER shows the impact of information by means of recognisable objects and situations. In addition, we show how designers visualise complex information in a clear and appealing way.

Inspiring exhibitions, workshops, talkshows and public interventions stimulate the responsibility of creators and the visual literacy of everyday users before we drown in a sea of information and data

20 SEPT – 27 OCT

Author info


Dennis is oprichter en curator van Graphic Matters.