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National Geographic Infographics – 128 years of “using art to explain”

Founded in 1888, National Geographic is one of the longest-running magazines in the world and one of the most recognisable – its cover photography and familiar yellow border (a trademark) give the title a unique presence on the newsstand. Inside, it remains distinctive, too, and the magazine’s range of infographics have given it considerable standing as a scientific publication.

A new book from Taschen focuses on how its infographics have helped to visualise aspects of history, science and technology, geography, the natural world – and man’s impact on it – within the magazine’s pages. As its Deputy Creative Director Kaitlin Yarnall explains in her introduction, when the first issue of National Geographic was mailed to the 200 charter members of the National Geographic Society in October of 1888, it contained no photographs. What did it have, however, were maps, charts and diagrams.

“We are deployed to subjects that can’t be photographed,” writes Yarnall of the continuing traditions of the magazine’s visual department. “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.”

Taschen’s book is a huge undertaking. There are hundreds of infographics to pore over and, below, we present ten examples that highlight a range of approaches in use from the 1960s to the present day. “Some of the most powerful tools we can deploy are maps, graphics, charts, diagrams, and illustrations,” Yarnall says. “We’re in the business of using art to explain.”

Click on each image shown below to see a larger version of the infographic

National Geographic – Infographics is published by Taschen (£44.99). See taschen.com

The World of Flowers, May 1968. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
The World of Flowers, May 1968. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

This 1968 map shows, as the original caption explains, “the origins of 117 of man’s favourite flowers” – the spread of which has been enabled by the movements of people, “explorers, conquerers, and adventurers”. The caption expands on this: “Holland’s tulip is a native of Turkey; the ‘French’ marigold arrived in Europe with the return of the conquistadors from Mexico”. To make the map, geographic artist Ned Seidler consulted Dr Mildred E Mathias, professor of botany at the University of California.

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Firefighting, July 1968. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
Firefighting, July 1968. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

This illustration drawn by RV Nicholson depicts the methods used (in the 1960s) to fight forest fires. “Fighting fire,” runs the caption, “like waging war, demands a battle plan”. The main aim shown here is the carving of “8-to-20-foot-wide fire lines. When the legions join lines in the path of the fire – over the crest of the mountain – they will contain the flames”.

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The Animals of Africa: A Continent’s Living Treasures, February 1972. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
The Animals of Africa: A Continent’s Living Treasures, February 1972. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

The Animals of Africa: A Continent’s Living Treasures appeared in the February 1972 edition of National Geographic and incorporated paintings by staff artist Ned Seidler and maps by Elie Sabban. Research was carried out by Jean B McConville, while the project was developed in consultation with Dr Theodore H Reed, then director of the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC. “Beside each animal, a map depicts its range in the early 1970s (in most cases larger and more expansive than current estimates),” explain the Taschen editors. “Where an illustration such as that for the zebra embraces several species, the map shows a composite of their habitats.”

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Columbia Spacelab 1, September 1983. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
Columbia Spacelab 1, September 1983. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

In 1983, Dale Gustafson painted this image of the Columbia space shuttle along with its its Spacelab 1 laboratory module that fitted inside the cargo for an article on the craft by Michael E Long. Columbia’s ten-day mission, launched on November 28, was “a joint venture between NASA and the ESA to conduct over 70 different experiments—in the fields of astronomy, physics, life sciences, and many others—to demonstrate that advanced research in space was possible.”

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The Atom, May 1985. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
The Atom, May 1985. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

Illustrator and comics artist Barron Storey created this striking infographic – Milestones on the Inward Path – to explain our understanding of the atom (as it stood in the mid-1980s). Artistically, it is one of the most unusual approaches taken by National Geographic – and manages to be both informative and beautiful. In 1979, Storey became the first artist to be create the first official painting of the NASA space shuttle.

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How We Perceive and How We Are Deceived, November 1992. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
How We Perceive and How We Are Deceived, November 1992. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

This inforgraphic, How We Perceive and How We Are Deceived aimed to show how “visual illusions can be more than curiosities, since studying people’s reactions to them may also reveal how the visual system works,” write the Taschen editors. “In the above graphic, the act of seeing a bird begins as our lenses focus the image, inverted, on the retina at the back of each eye. Within this sliver of neural tissue, millions of photo-receptor cells parse the image into an array of components. The bird’s colours, shape, and motion are received as photons of light and coded into electrical impulses, which are then channeled to the cortex where they are analysed and interpreted. Finally, the brain creates our perception of the bird, instantly and right-side up.”

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Sea turtles, February 1994. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
Sea turtles, February 1994. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

Painted by Dutch artist Braldt Bralds for the February 1994 edition of National Geographic, this image details the seven species of sea turtles (the black turtle is considered a sub-species of the green), all of which are threatened or endangered.

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Space, December 2006. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
Space, December 2006. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

Dana Berry of Skyworks Digital’s spectacular impression of Saturn (viewed from above its north pole) shows how the planet resembles “a miniature solar system”. The graphics, which include 14 of its 35 named moons, were based on NASA images and created with support from consultants at several leading universities.

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Cheetahs, November 2010. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
Cheetahs, November 2010. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

This infographic from the November 2010 edition is by Jason Treat and Bryan Christie and conveys how each part of the cheetah’s body – from its “propulsive spine” to rudder-like tail – contributes to its title of ‘fastest land animal’.

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Vanishing Venice, August 2009. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license
Vanishing Venice, August 2009. © National Geographic Partners, LLC All rights reserved NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and Yellow Border Design are trademarks of the National Geographic Society, used under license

Virginia W Mason created this graphic of Venice depicting how rising tides and sinking foundations are contributing to its flooding – “two factors that have, for centuries, threatened to submerge the city entirely,” runs the Taschen caption. “Some say the most regular flooding, however, is tourism: in 2007, the resident population was 60,000, while the number of visitors reached 21 million.” The money from tourism is however helping the city defences – in the form of a controversial plan that started in 2003. The MOSE project is a series of floodgates “that can be raised to stem the flow of seawater into Venice’s lagoon. With much of the city vulnerable to flooding, including the famous Piazza San Marco (one of the lowest spots in the city), officials hope the gates will buy Venice some time, while critics worry about the ballooning cost and the effect on local ecology.”

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Cover of National Geographic – Infographics (Taschen)
Cover of National Geographic – Infographics (Taschen)

National Geographic – Infographics is published by Taschen (£44.99). See taschen.com

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