blog design Review

Take A Closer Look At (and Teach) W.E.B. Du Bois’s Afrofuturist Data Visualizations from 1900

I moved to Philadelphia a yr and a half in the past and purchased a number of books to assist me study my new city as I settled in. Certainly one of them, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Research, was written by the sociologist, activist, and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois. (Bear with me: you in all probability know this all already however as a Brit, I have virtually no background in US historical past and have been educating myself regularly.) The ebook was researched between 1896-7 whereas Du Bois was an Assistant in Sociology on the College of Pennsylvania, the place he was employed to research the seventh ward of the town of Philadelphia. Revealed in 1899, the guide is the primary intently observed, systematic research of black People within the US, and was radical not just for this reality but in addition for its writer’s adamant rejection of inherent racial distinction, focusing as an alternative on elements corresponding to poverty and entry to assets like schooling and healthcare.

I devoured it.

Flash ahead one yr. While researching examples of knowledge visualization for the present trendy and modern design course I’m co-teaching at that same university at which DuBois once labored, I came throughout a newly-published ebook that had me gripped as I flipped its pages: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits Visualizing Black America: The Colour Line on the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018). I purchased it, in fact. And I devoured it too. After which I decided to show from it.


In what the guide’s editors Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Brit Rusert describe as an “investment in a truly public sociology,” in 1900, as a professor of sociology and historical past at Atlanta University in Georgia, Du Bois collaborated with a wide range of colleagues, college students, and alumni to supply roughly sixty knowledge visualizations. These designs have been shown as part of an umbrella exhibition, the Exposition des Negres d’Amerique (The American Negro Exhibit), at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle (which had over 50 million guests and 120 collaborating nations during its seven month run). Utilizing Census knowledge, as well as studies from authorities bodies just like the US Department of Labor, Du Bois shifted his focus from Philadelphia to Georgia to create two distinctive collection of knowledge visualizations: The Georgia Negro: A Social Research and A Collection of Statistical Charts Illustrating the Circumstances of the Descendants of Former Slaves Now In Residence in the USA of America.

These boldly coloured graphs and charts interrogated every part from literacy to inhabitants distribution to employment, and a hanging lead image for the Georgia research represented the “color line”–the transatlantic slave commerce route–additional theorized by Du Bois in his 1903 The Souls of Black People (the place he noted that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line”). As Battle-Baptiste and Rusert attest, “while a broader American culture was not ready to recognize the existence of a school of black sociologists in the US South, Du Bois turned to a visual medium–and the proto-modernist aesthetics of turn-of-the-century data visualization–to gain the attention of an international audience.”

Their words are hanging within the current context of movements like Black Lives Matter and modern instruments like social media. It’s value noting that whereas the larger American Negro Exhibition (which featured a a lot wider vary of objects, pictures, and texts “meant to educate patrons about the forms of education and uplift occurring at black institutions and and in African American communities across the US”) has been completely studied, their ebook is the first to deliver collectively all the info visualizations reproduced in full colour. It also consists of vital scholarly reflections from Mabel O. Wilson, Aldon Morris, and Silas Munro. Battle-Baptiste and Rusert highlight that this work is a part of (design) historical past that must be seen, recognized, and more extensively accessible–one of the objectives of their publication.


In the event you’ve ever taken a design history course of any sort, especially one focusing on trendy and modern design, you’ll know that the worldwide “Great Exhibitions” like the one in 1900 the place Du Bois’s work was proven, are a central focus. The first ever was held from Might 1 to October 15, 1851, within the Crystal Palace erected on the outskirts of London by Joseph Paxton with the help of Prince Albert and civil servant Henry Cole. In a mean design historical past textbook, the canon teaches us that these giant events–the Exposition Universelles of 1855, 1867, and 1889 in Paris and the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia of 1876, to name but a number of–attracted hundreds of exhibitors from throughout the globe and lots of tens of millions of tourists.

The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, 1851.

They’re highlighted as necessary for the ways by which exhibitors used this platform to point out craft, design, and material tradition that expressed certain points of national id on a public platform, in addition to the ways during which the exhibitions engendered the creation of standards of design apply and institutions for design schooling within the mid-late nineteenth century that completely formed the final century and a half of follow within the western world–for instance, the Deutsche Werkbund, the Bauhaus, the “Good Design” of midcentury trendy furniture, and past. Singer stitching machines, Colt pistols, Otis elevators, and Robert Stevenson’s hydraulic press, among other trendy design wonders, all discovered early mass audiences at Great Exhibitions. In newer educating of the Great Exhibitions, scholars have (finally, with extra work nonetheless to be finished) additionally taken nice pains to unpack the various layers of colonialist ideas and actions that formed the presence and absence of non-white our bodies and non-western cultures and nations at these “international” occasions.

W.E.B. DuBois at the Exposition Universelle, Paris, together with his knowledge visualizations, 1900.

So, it’s protected to say that the subject of Great Exhibitions is one pretty well-traversed in design historical past. It was thus with some surprise that the first three design historian colleagues at whom I excitedly waved the Du Bois knowledge visualization e-book had by no means before seen or heard of them. These are scholars whose information I bow down in front of and who, between them, in all probability have over a century of combined educating and publishing years between them. It thus felt like a good idea to write down one thing brief on this stellar ebook, and the persuasive, thrilling, and completely lovely designs of Du Bois’s, in order that more individuals devour them like I did this past month (I wrote this submit back in January, and the very next day a superb assessment appeared on Hyperallergic–great minds and so on). And, my hope is that extra academics and curators may insert them into the classroom, into exhibitions, and into one of many canonical areas of histories–design or in any other case.

It’s because Du Bois doesn’t just must be taught in the context of Nice Exhibitions. He’s a part of the much longer history of knowledge visualization that I feel too typically gets left by the wayside in discussions of the Industrial Revolution and emergent types of modernity–in art and design histories, a minimum of. I’ve helped exhibit and write about knowledge visualization created by modern designers, from the superb Wind Map devised by Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenburg that pulls real-time US Meteorological Middle knowledge into lovely digital swirls, to Barrett Lyon’s visualization of the Internet, Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec’s wonderfully analog Pricey Data venture, and Christien Meindertsma’s book-form financial system of use, PIG 05049. And don’t get me began on MIT’s doyenne of knowledge viz, Muriel Cooper….


City and Rural Populations, 1890.

Employed for a while at MoMA, I saw Alfred Barr’s well-known infographic of Trendy Artwork each time I went into the library there. Once I train, I examine his inflexible circulate chart with the superb remapping of art historical past from the tropics by Pablo Leon de la Barra, Diagrama Tropical / Nova Cartografia Tropical from 2010. I look additional back to Harry Beck’s London Underground Map (1933) and Massimo Vignelli’s NYC Subway Map (1972). And again further into the nineteenth century to examples like Dr. John Snow’s notorious cholera dot map of 1854, and Florence Nightingale’s seminal vortex-like chart, “Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East,” that mapped the most important explanation for soldiers’ deaths (unsanitary hospital circumstances, not their actual wounds) in the course of the Crimean Warfare. (Nightingale used the info visualization to influence Queen Victoria and Parliament that main reform in hospital techniques would have vital benefits to the mortality of their army forces, and civilians too.) And because of my own personal biases as a Scot, I’m going all the best way back to Scotsman William Playfair who is usually credited with inventing the bar graph and pie chart in 1786 and 1801, respectively, in the first and third (re)print of his Business Atlas which tried to sum up British state finances.

Du Bois belongs to this history of knowledge visualization within design. Battle-Baptiste and Rusert point to Du Bois’s “focus on modernist design … [and his] interest in representing the Black South as an integral part of modernity, a “small nation of people” who shared extra in widespread with the broader, future-oriented “thinking world” than with an insular, backward-looking United States, where Jim Crow segregation was the rule of the land.” And of course, as well as proto-modern aesthetics, Du Bois employed Afrofuturist strategies of aspiration and reimagination round, and rewriting of, black histories lengthy earlier than the term was coined in the early 1990s, and have become the buzzword it’s in the present day.

In reality, the closer I look, the more I can’t think about any design historical past textbook printed at the moment with out these daring charts as part of the canon held inside. Because of a chance encounter with an excellent ebook, they’re now firmly on my syllabus, that’s for positive.