A Brief Time Line of Contemporary data visualization — Draft


Why History of Contemporary Data Visualization?

Statistical graphics and data visualization have deep roots reaching into a world history where social environments and humans’ understanding of information keep changing. Along the way, developments in technologies, mathematical theory and practice, and empirical observation and recording enabled the wider use of graphics and new advances in form and content. (Friendly, 2008)  Scheiner’s 1626 representation of the changes in sunspots over time(Pic 1) is a great example of digital visualization taking advantages from technology developments. This representation is made based on the author’s theory of Tufte (later known as the principle of “small multiples”) , which is raised due to developments on physical measurement methods in his era.

Scheiner’s 1626 representation of the changes in sunspots over time , Scheiner, 1626

In a modern world where developments in technologies take place way faster compared to hundred years ago, innovations on data visualization happen everyday. One example is ‘The Room of Change’, a data visualization project designed for an exhibition. (Pic 2)Giorgia Lupi created a 30-meters-long hand-crafted data-tapestry illustrating how multiple aspects of our environment have changed in the past centuries, how they are still changing, and how they will likely continue changing, addressing many of the topics presented in the exhibition.(Giorgia Lupi, 2019)

Pic 2 The Room of Change, Giorgia Lupi, 2019
Pic 3 The time distribution of events considered milestones in the history of data visualization,
shown by a rug plot and density estimate,Michael Friendly,2008

For sure we would have an exciting future in this field. However, before diving into the future, it would be beneficial to take some time to review how we came to the place where we are today. Here is where my interest in History of Contemporary Data Visualization came from: What happened in the past 50 years? How did those changes lead us to where we are right now? Based on this interest, I researched on the development of Data visualization since 1975. While density of development time courses is extremely high in this time period(Pic 3), I decided to focus on 5-10 critical developments in this project and to answer 3 key questions with a brief time for post 1970s data visualization methods:

– What are some important methods developed after 1970s?

-What did those methods contribute to?

-How can a timeline of those methods tell a story of contemporary data visualization history?


The timeline for this project was created with TimelineJS, an open-source program. Research related to topic was done with Pratt Institute Library, Google Scholar, Wikipedia and Youtube. Data was then collected and compiled into a google spreadsheet. This project is relied on the following references:

Friendly, M. (2008). A Brief History of Data Visualization. In C. Chen, W. Härdle, & A. Unwin, Handbook of Data Visualization (pp. 15–56). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-33037-0_2

Hong, Chong Sun, & Lee, U.K. (2006). Graphical Methods for Hierarchical Log-Linear Models. Communications for Statistical Applications and Methods, 13(3), 755–764. https://doi.org/10.5351/CKSS.2006.13.3.755Meyer, D., Zeileis, A., & Hornik, K. (2003). Visualizing Independence Using Extended Association Plots. 8.

Meyer, D., Zeileis, A., & Hornik, K. (2003). Visualizing Independence Using Extended Association Plots. 8.

Google Scholar

-Research Gate




  1. Research– I started with researching on academic articles on post-1970s data visualization methods. Key platform used on this stage was Pratt Institute Library, Google Scholar and Research Gate.
  2. Organization– Based on research results, I summarized 6 key methods developed after 1970s and compiled related information into a google spreadsheet, including: a. name of the method b. a brief description of the method c. when was the method firstly developed d. who developed the method. e. related media
  3. Visualization – I then imported the spreadsheet into TimelineJS’s Step 3 on their website and created an interactive time line.
Pic 5 Google Spreadsheet created for Timeline JS Data Input

Result and Interpretation

View the final Timeline here

View the final Google Sheet data here

This timeline presents six types of methods that represent significant developments of data visualization methods after 1970s. With this Timeline, would be able to see how newly developed data visualization methods change though out 1970 to 2000.

Reflection and Future Direction

The research process has allowed me to know more about data visualization methods developed after the 70s. Those new knowledge has provided me new insights on how contemporary visualization method evolved into the methods we use today.

I connected with one of my classmate ZhiChun to conduct peer reviews on both of our timelines, which brought me new thoughts on how to tell a time-based story. In my timeline, I used method names as titles, which I think would be helpful to those who already have some knowledge on contemporary data visualization. In comparison, Zhichun used key time points as titles. In this way, the timeline is more friendly to those people who don’t previously know a lot of Data visualization.