Information Design Innovators: William Playfair

As a team of designers and strategists working toward building brands identities, we deal in information and how to present it visually. Whether we are creating packaging, catalogues, websites, digital advertisements, or printed material, we routinely synthesize numerical data and the written word through the lens of visual communication. We want your message heard-or rather heard, read, and seen. When done right, the organization of information through strong visuals and layout strategies makes an audience pay attention and retain your message. Essentially, how can we use design principles to communicate your brand to its audience?

Since research is at the core of our practice, we want to approach this question by delving into the history of information design. This is our way of sharing design innovations of the past to design better now. So without further ado: this week we’ll look at the pioneering work of William Playfair, a Scottish political economist who invented pie charts and perfected the use of line and bar graphs: three of the four fundamental statistical graphics. (Scatterplots would be developed in the 19th century.)

This line chart is one of a series of graphs Playfair created to examine England’s trade relationships with other countries over time. (Image: William Playfair/Public Domain)


Though these graphing strategies may seem ubiquitous today, scholars of the late eighteenth century turned their noses up at anything remotely illustrative. Drawings were for working through problems, not presenting them; to support an argument with illustrations was suspicious at best. But Playfair played by a different set of rules (if this was a different blog post, we might go into his illustrious life, which included blackmailing a Lord and storming the Bastille.) What is interesting about Playfair, when brought into the context of design, was his forethought on the necessity of visual communication in light of changing times. In his own words, “As the knowledge of mankind increases, and transactions multiply, it becomes more and more desirable to abbreviate and facilitate the modes of conveying information from one person to another, and from one individual to another.” Playfair saw a future in graphical representation to help busy people, inundated with the new statistics of the Enlightenment, to quickly and lastingly understand his message. He saw his work (charts that illustrated the commercial progress of England throughout the 1700s) as “giving form and shape to a number of separate ideas, which are otherwise abstract and unconnected.” Isn’t this also a part of the work of a designer: to create an effective graphic language that solidifies an abstract concept to a busy, modern audience? Below, you can find his invention of the pie chart: a visualization of the areas, populations, and revenues of European states before and after the French Revolution that is also the first example of color coding in a chart. Here’s to William Playfair: a Scottish rogue who was at the forefront of what visual language can accomplish.


Playfair’s invention of the pie chart, which examines a nation’s wealth in relation to its territory. (Image:Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Wealthy and Powerful Nations (1805), figure 2.)