The first great Age of Infographics took root 1,000 years ago inspired variously by quests to categorize scientific knowledge, organize Greco-Roman scholarship and, weirdly, trace family bloodlines so that aristocrats could avoid incest as defined by Vatican rule-makers.
Manuel Lima's illustrated history The Book of Trees (Princeton Architectural Press) chronicles how Medieval-era designers instinctively used trunk and branch diagrams to impose order on the explosion of new data. One millennium later, tree-based graphics continue to pack considerable punch as information delivery systems.
Lima, who first started pondering tree morphology in 2005 when he authored Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, says, "It's too easy to think that information visualization is a new way to deal with the demands of all the big data we have in this century. In fact the Medieval period is the genesis of where information design and visualization comes from. That's when people realized that text only is not enough."
For scholars, monks, and heredity-minded royal families, trees served as a handy way to divvy information into groups and sub-groups. Lima figures, "They had the concept of hierarchy in their minds and used the tree as a symbol for mapping because it was convenient. Over time, it became ingrained in our minds so that now when we talk about the root of a problem or describe genetics as a branch of science, we're really going back to this Medieval era when people started using diagrams to convey complex new knowledge."
Lima's book, subtitled Visualizing Branches of Knowledge, documents a steady erosion of botanical detail. Where the 13th-century "Tree of Virtues," for example, came complete with the bumps, lumps, and leaves of an actual growing thing, 21st-century data artist Werner Randelshofer's "icicle tree" relies on TreeViz software to generate hyper-tidy rectilinear forms. "Today's tree-based graphics have no resemblance to a real tree," Lima says. "It's like they've almost become a separate exotic species. In the design community, you've only reached perfection when you've removed everything that's unnecessary. By eliminating all the leaves and branches to arrive at these super-clean graphics, it opened up a huge path of discovery when it comes to data visualization."
Even though tree-inspired infographics have translated through time and across cultures with unusual fluidity, Lima believes the trunk/branch model now fails to reflect Internet-era complexities. "Now it's more about having the web of life as opposed to the tree of life," he says. "You could not represent a Facebook community for example without using a network. You're still mapping social ties just as they used to map relationships of blood or friendship with 'consanguinity trees,' so the subject is pretty much the same. But our understanding of things is much more complex."
Despite being denuded of hand-drawn charm and out-matched in complexity by "networking" paradigms, tree-based graphics won't become obsolete any time soon. "Our human need for order and structure is probably not going to vanish, which is why we like trees so much," Lima says. "They're very re-assuring. If we can add tree structure to network infographics that truly expresses the connections between all these different branches, that's where I think you'll have something really interesting to explore."