Minard’s march – a hallmark visualization, rightly so?

Ralph Straumann

Ralph is a world-citizen, a geoinformation specialist by profession, and interested in many topics. Here, he'll confine himself mostly to things geo-visual.

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1 Response

  1. I’m flattered to see my spate of tweets turned into a blog post! The whole topic is definitely one that deserves more than 140 characters, so I’ll take this comment as an opportunity to articulate my thoughts a little better.

    The first thing that must be acknowledged: as far as we know, Minard’s map wasn’t commissioned by anybody, or formally published in any capacity, we can’t really say who its audience was, or what its purpose was supposed to be, or what it intended to communicate. That makes it practically impossible to judge whether the map is a success or a failure. But it’s always interesting as a discussion piece.

    Regarding its use of text: I support the use of text when it used to clarify and contextualize the content within the map (or whatever the information graphic is). If, however, the text exists just to explain how to read a map that would be unintelligible otherwise, it’s probably a sign that the map needs a more intuitive graphical representation for its content. Minard can be forgiven on this point: pictoral legends didn’t really exist in 1869, so we can probably assume that a 19th century reader would benefit more from a textual explanation more than a modern-day reader.

    Another thing that I’ve realized regarding the language barrier: the English word “map” is rather ambiguous: it is also used to refer to other sorts of diagrams and charts that aren’t “maps” as Cartographers know it. And the phrase “figurative map” is essentially meaningless in English. I suspect that the French “carte” is less ambiguous in this way, and the title would better cue Francophone readers about the graphic’s abstracted geography.

    My second major criticism is one I never really expanded upon in my tweets, even though it was the entire reason I made that first comment in response to the Numberphile video. Minard’s graphic is heavy on *data*, but short on *information*. Tufte praises the map for representing six different quantitative variables, but… so what? What do I actually learn from the combination of those 6 datasets that couldn’t be conveyed via some other, more conventional method? Zelazny made some junky PowerPoint charts, but his executive summary is spot on (albeit tersely worded): “THE COLDER IT GOT, THE MORE SOLDIERS DIED”. A picture is supposed to be worth 1000 words, but the map of Napoleon’s march only manages those 8.

    This goes hand-in-hand with the criticism of the map’s inhumanity. If this were truly “the world’s greatest information graphic”, it would convey to the reader much more of the things they would need to or want to know about the campaign. This includes an understanding of the campaign’s human cost. It might be my personal bias, but I am much more impressed by information graphics that holistically educate their readers about the chosen topic, rather than just dropping a bunch of data onto an image.

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