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See The Entire History of the World, As Told By Infographics

"The Infographic History of the World" is a U.K. book that uses some artfully arrayed data to chronicle our collective past--everything from Roman armies to top-selling albums. The book’s editor, Craig Adams, sheds some light on how the project came about.

Infographics exist at the intersection of data, design, and storytelling. Mostly, though, they’re used in small doses to illustrate disparate concepts; much more rarely are they grouped in themes to serve a larger narrative. However, it’s exactly this imbalance that The Infographic History of the World is poised to start tipping.

More than 200 pages, the book does nothing less than chronicle nearly 14 billion years of earth’s history--with subjects from global superpowers’ relative military might and the development of major art techniques to what we all die of--all rendered in clever, topic-specific graphics.

"Some people simply aren’t interested in long-form content," says Craig Adams, an editor at HarperCollins. "They look at the spine of a book and try to calculate how long it’ll take them to extract the knowledge inside it."

And this is part of the appeal of infographics. Their succinct nature and visual flair are like neural crack for today’s ADD-addled data junkies. To some, getting the facts served up in a compelling and easily digestible visual form, rather than spelunking through cavernous paragraphs, is a method for saving time. If these people were able to digest book-length ideas this way, too, they might consider it a life hack of the first order.

"I thought that if I could find an author and designer to pair a series of interesting topics that tell the story of the history of the world with a graphical way of explaining them, then the result would be a quick-to-understand, easy-to-read, and novel way to approach an old subject," Adams says.

Finding the right duo for this undertaking proved somewhat difficult. Award-winning Guardian journalist James Ball has a big online profile in the realm of data and seemed a likely choice for author. The challenge was coming up with the right designer to pair with him. After scouring the Internet for potential candidates, Adams finally came up with a shortlist and sent each designer samples of Ball’s data-writing to see how they would approach the material. Valentina D’Efilippo’s efforts proved far and away the most creative and the best fit.

Once Adams put the team together, the challenge became figuring out how much data to present, and how to do it in such a way that the concept of the book would never wear out its welcome.

"With most books, you read them, absorb the answers they provide, and move on," Adams says. "We didn’t want to pretend that every set of data always presents you with one unquestionable truth, so every one of the themes illustrated in the book created hours of interesting, often philosophical discussion about the numbers behind it." He adds, "We provide all the sources, but really it’s that journey for readers to interpret the data for themselves."

Have a look at some of the infographics in the slides above, and watch a video about the book below.

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  • Steven Laird

    Just finished reading a biography of Mercator (the map guy), and he tried to do the same thing - in the mid-1500s. And had a lot of time lines to work out, since calendars and dates weren't consistent. He ended up with a kind of table that connected Biblical, Roman, Greek, and other timelines on a grid. Ergo, an infographic.