Modley’s Pictographs and Graphs

Rudolf Modley was a key figure in the popularization of Isotype in the United States. I’ve previously written about Isotype (e.g. hypothesizing what happened to it, and thematic axes). I recently received Modley and Lowenstein’s book Pictographs and Graphs (1952, Harper & Brothers). In addition to some beautiful pictographic charts, it also includes useful explanations of the design process and rationale used to create these effective and engaging charts. Here’s some insights from 70 years ago:

Insights from Modley

Storytelling. Modley was talking about storytelling with charts a half-century before data journalism: “The pictorial chartmarker is a headline writer among statisticians. If he fails to tell a story, his charts become pointless.” – pg 23.

Pictographs. “Pictorial symbols should be self-explanatory” – pg 25. A worthy goal, but a big challenge for anyone who’s had to try to design an icon for a menu (hamburger icon? gear?) or CPI (inflated $? balloon?)

Comparisons. “Pictographs make comparisons, not flat statements.” – pg 26. A single row of pictographs referring to a single value is pointless. It’s about comparing one value to another. There are quite a few infographics that fall into this category, with “one big number” and associated pictograph, but what’s it compared to? On it’s own, it’s a single factoid without any potential relative judgment.

Memorable charts. “A good chart may be judged from what the reader remembers the day after he sees it.” – pg 28. Modley sets the stage for this need right at the beginning of the book, on page 2, he describes Mr. Smith consuming information throughout the data – “a flood of varying facts which he must digest and evaluate for himself. Not the least important problem is to retain the essential facts from the wealth of information passing through his mind in one day”.

Personal engagement. “The American development of pictorial statistics has tried to avoid over-standardization of symbols. … it has wanted to bring symbols to life and to adapt them to each new audience. As we have seen in the case of Mr. Smith, his full interest and curiosity are not aroused unless there is some suggestion of his own habits and interests in a graph or illustration.” This is an interesting indication that rather than uniform pictographs used across all charts (perhaps like early Isotype before Gerd Arntz), Modley instead recognizes a requirement for icons intrinsically connected with the subject matter.

Some snapshots

Here’s a couple examples in action from the book:

A couple of charts from Pictographs and Graphs, 1952.

The left image shows the number of women at work – a straight-forward Isotype-like chart with the subtle cue of women’s attire changing with successive rows. This subtle change indicates, minimally that each row represents different data. Further, the attire change reinforces the time scale by using attire associated with each period.

In the right image, a person is comically attempting to hold a pile of coins. The person is literally staggering under a pile of debt (an idiom made into a visualization!). Note the captions above each column indicating the dollar amount – relative visual comparisons are possible, and the quantitative facts are explicitly depicted as well.

Even better

I understand from Nigel Holmes via Jason Forrest, that this 1952 book reprints only some of the content from Modley’s earlier book from 1937 How to Use Pictorial Statistics (a much more rare book). One day I’ll have to track down an edition.

The rare pictograph book: How to Use Pictorial Statistics, 1937.


Visualizing with Text footnote – 2 letter Scrabble words.

I’m seeing examples of interesting, interactive text visualizations in the wild. These are relevant to my book Visualizing with Text, particularly if I find examples that don’t quite fit. Occasionally, I’ll pop an example into the blog. Today’s example is a blog post by Gideon Golden with both an interactive stem&leaf plot of 2 letter Scrabble words, as well as a table of the same words, organized by first letter and last letter and color-coded by Cmglee:

About richardbrath

Richard is a long time visualization designer and researcher. Professionally, I am one of the partners of Uncharted Software Inc. I have recently completed a PhD in data visualization at LSBU. The opinions on this blog are related to my personal interests in data visualization, particularly around research interests related to my PhD work- this blog is about exploratory aspects of data visualization not proven principles.
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