Charles-Joseph Minard: A Legacy of Beautiful Data-based Maps

The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard / Princeton Architectural Press

Edward Tufte, the world’s best known information designer, said Charles-Joseph Minard’s statistical map of Napolean’s 1812 invasion and then retreat from Russia was the greatest information graphic ever made.

Hannibal’s March over the Alps and Napoleon’s Russian campaign / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press

In a delightful new book, The Minard System: The Complete Statistical Graphics of Charles-Joseph Minard, author Sandra Rendgen uncovers the man who made the graphic as well as his many data visualization innovations.

Born in Dijon, France in 1871, Minard spent his career as a civil engineer, with much of it as an inspector of transportation infrastructure. It’s only in retirement that he was able to delve into his passion for the visual representations of statistics.

Minard’s engineering education and career deeply informed his approach to statistical maps. He had a “general appreciation of fact-based scientific practice, which tends to value empirical evidence over abstract reasoning and intuition.” His graphics were driven by the desire to best enable the “systematic gathering and evaluation of facts.”

But for a man so interested in scientific precision, there is also real beauty to his visualizations, with their “clean and minimalist aesthetics.” Rendgen argues that experts know a Minard visualization when they see one: “Not only are they refined in every detail of their rendering, including the lines, the dotting, the hachure, and the concise labeling, they also have a very ‘modern’ appeal to them.” He was then not only a engineer and statistician but also a designer.

Transport of mineral fuels in France, 1845-1860 / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press

Before Facebook created the Like button, Minard perfected a number of essential and elegant infographic elements that are now core to our global visual vocabulary.

For example, starting in 1845, Minard perfected the use of proportional circles on maps to indicate the amount of certain goods or populations in any given place.

Maritime ports in France, 1857 by Charles-Joseph Minard / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press

Minard is also know for his simplistic yet also precise “flow maps” that indicate overall traffic volumes of goods or people over territories. Minard expected his detail-minded viewers to carefully examine his maps, perhaps even with a ruler, so he drew the flow intervals or widths to be exact to the millimeter. For example, in the graphic below, Minard visualized the tremendous decline in cotton imports (the blue band) from the U.S. to Europe during the American Civil War to the tons.

European cotton imports, 1858 / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press
European cotton imports, 1862 / The Minard System, The collection of the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées. Princeton Architectural Press

The flow maps had to be both accurate and easy-to-understand: they were designed to help traffic engineers “predict demand on existing or projected routes,” or policymakers understand the bigger picture and make necessary policy, tax, or regulatory changes.

As Minard honed his craft over the years, Rendgen says his work only improved. “He gradually developed an understanding of the intricacies of integrating many different flows into one coherent representation and continually worked on avoiding clutter in his multi-flow representations.”

During his lifetime, Minard’s visual innovations were immediately and widely copied because they were so intuitive. His legacy is found in nearly every data visualization we see today. And the Minard system is perhaps needed more than ever before — to wade through the ever-growing sea of data and see clearly what it all means.

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