By Tracy Tonnu
National Geographic is known for their iconic photographs, which is part of the reason why the magazine is considered a collector’s item. But their oftentimes forgotten infographics which artfully tell stories that can’t be captured in an image are equally significant and influential.
In the preface to National Geographic Infographics, a book comprised of the magazine’s best infographics from the past 128 years, deputy creative director Kaitlin Yarnall writes about the art department’s undertaking: “Things too small (atoms!), too big (black holes!), too complex (migration patterns!), too old (Roman ruins!), too conceptual (dark energy!), or too numeric (trade flows!) to be photographed are our specialty.”
The book reveals some interesting tidbits, like the fact that infographics have been a component of the magazine since its first publication in 1888. This was back when the magazine was still an academic journal for the National Geographic Society—a 200-member society of wealthy adventurers that swapped stories of their excursions.
It wasn’t until Alexander Graham Bell and his son-in-law Gilbert Grosvenor transformed the academic journal into a general interest magazine that it began featuring photographs and maps. One of the earliest examples of these additions can be found in the April 1893 issue and is a 3D reconstruction of a 1747 map by Italian mathematician Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli.
Even though years have passed and art and design technology have advanced, the infographics and maps found within the magazine’s pages today do not differ too much from those in the early publications. In the book’s introduction, British/American designer and long-time contributor to the magazine Nigel Holmes writes:
“One kind of image-making that the magazine has not abandoned is the hand-drawn graphic illustration. This is not some kind of nostalgic throwback to the days when it was the only possible way to make information visible. One National Geographic artist in particular, Fernando Baptista, is today carrying on a tradition from long ago, but in a very modern way. His amazing models of buildings and animals, and his hand-drawn art win major prizes in international competitions, as well they should. He is just one reason that National Geographic is so respected. Perhaps it’s even the main reason in the field of information design. He uses the power of the computer to mold his own drawing and model making into extraordinary images.”
Check out some of the infographics below and buy the book here.