Timeline of World History 1
November 5, 2021

See history with fresh eyes by reading the Timeline of World History

By Paul Laughlin

Closing off my focus on seeing with fresh eyes is this book review of the beautiful “Timeline of World History” from Matt Baker & John Andrews of Useful Charts.

This book is a great example of creativity in both book production & printed data visualisations. So, I share this review to encourage you to read this book as an education in history & data viz. As I mentioned in my review of the Infographic Bible, printed data visualisations can be very impactful.

Full disclosure, I was kindly offered a copy of this book for free by Matt Baker when he was publicising it to reviewers. But I stand by all my comments as independent and have recommended to family & friends too. Let’s explore what data & insight leaders can learn from this fun (honest) history textbook. I will seek to highlight three lessons that could also inform your visualisation projects.

The structure of this book, wall chart & foldout charts

The first thing you will notice when you open this hardback book is the apparently fatter pages at intervals through and the back of the book. These are the 5 large timeline charts provided. You also have an elasticated ribbon to save your place (like a giant Moleskine notebook). All together, they make this feel like a treasure trove to explore not just a book. Adding to that power of a tangible object that I mentioned before.

Personally, I really like the timeline charts. The simple visual representation, use of colour, annotation & images make them both interesting & accessible. The larger wallchart (kept safe in a pocket inside the front cover) is 25 by 34 inches, so large enough for wall display in a classroom (or my office). Equally spaced throughout the book are the four foldout charts, which expand to 17 by 35 inches.

The book is structured like a history textbook but helpfully encourages us through its structure to look at history from a more global perspective. This is a topic to which I will return. After a short introduction and opening section focussed on evolution and early history, the four main parts of this book are geographically divided. In turn, they cover the parallel histories of Africa & the Middle East, Europe, Asia & The Pacific and the Americas. The book closes with a short but sufficient index.

Lessons to learn for your Data Visualisation project

(1) Don’t be afraid of more detail

It would be easy to be put off such an ambitious project as communicating the history of the world. If the scope does not intimidate you, then the next temptation is to decide that you need to keep it high-level. Avoiding too much detail or data can sound like good advice. It can sound akin to the need to declutter your charts or avoid excessive use of colour. But Edward Tufte is right to challenge that thinking. As he once said: “There is no such thing as information overload there is only poor design“.

So, my first lesson for analysts & data visualisers would be to look at how much information this book is communicating. Most major events & regime changes are at least mentioned, across a global span. But this is achieved by the tip that Tufte suggests, considering design. The editors, Matt & John, wisely give readers multiple levels of detail, so they can choose how deep to deliver.

The high-level summary is rightly visual in the form of the wall chart. This covers the entire world and history from 2500 BC to 2000 AD. Only selected events are annotated or highlighted with an image. But through careful use of narrow colour coded timeline charts over 12 distinct early civilisations are charted through to 24 modern regions. Including all this on one chart enables useful comparisons, a sense of scale and provides a map across the major sections in the book. This is an achievement as well as a wall chart that draws in most who pass it. The only change I would have liked to see is a consistent colour coding from this chart to the detailed ones & throughout the book.

(2) Use the power of Data Viz to bring a fresh perspective

If you are anything like me, your memories of learning history at school are UK and Western Europe centric. From the memorisation of dates (from 1066 onwards) to the understanding of human progress. Everything was seen through the lens of assuming the UK or Europe was the centre of the world, at least until the USA took centre stage. But such a view is to miss how much has come from Africa, Asia & other civilisations often more advanced than our own. It also perpetuates ignorance of past events that still explain global loyalties & tensions.

This book addresses that gap. That reason alone should make it a helpful textbook for most classrooms & many homes. But it is also interesting for analysts & data visualisers to reflect on how this is achieved. Most older history textbooks include world maps centred on Europe, the UK or USA. This book avoids those by making the primary axis (for structuring text as well as charts) time. In each of the parallel sections focussed on a different continent, we are walking along a consistent timeline. This drives providing a consistent level of detail for less well known regional histories.

I have mentioned before that this would work well as a school textbook or a resource for families. That is because it uses a clear simple layout and accessible language. But that should not be taken to mean I think it is simplistic or ‘dumbs down‘. Analysts & visualisers should never patronise their audiences. Rather care has been taken to write clearly and briefly about so much. I for one knew very little about the Islamic Caliph wars, the Mali Empire, Admiral Zheng He’s voyages or the slave rebellion on Hispaniola before this book. There is plenty for all to learn here and that breadth can also engage your audience.

(3) Mix media to sustain attention

Another challenge from Edward Tufte in “Seeing with Fresh Eyes” was to not artificially separate media (text, photos, diagrams, equations, charts etc). He gives many examples of the benefits of mixed media notes. Annotated images as well as charts. Sparklines within a body of text. Small sketches mixed with tables of figures. His goal was always understanding & letting the content (insights) shine through.

A similar approach is taken in this book, if in a more controlled and subtle way. Perhaps recognising less time being spent reading traditional books, every page includes photos or images to draw the eye. Blocks of text are also broken up with astute use of white space and emboldening key dates or events within paragraphs. Finally, each photo is labelled with a colour coded date & title, a colour code that relates back to the associated foldout timeline chart. Different sizes of text also encourage the reader to both skim read to identify areas of interest and then drill into the detail where they are interested.

I encourage those presenting their analysis to think about how they can do the same. What information are you communicating, why and to whom? What photos may catch attention or accentuate a point? What diagrams could explain a key dimension of the issue? How can you highlight key text or images using consistent symbols or coloured to those used in your main charts? Is textual annotation on your charts sufficient or would an image or photo provide richer understanding in situ? All these questions are worth pondering to produce a presentation (or book) that both attracts the viewer and gives them depth to explore that will keep them coming back.

What’s your next Data Visualisation project to open eyes?

I hope you found that review helpful & pick up a copy of this book for your coffee table. If nothing else it will interest guests and always provide a conversation starter. But hopefully, you’re also interested in the lessons I drew out above. My goal is to encourage greater creativity and licence in data visualisation, including within businesses. It does not always have to come back to Powerpoint slides of Excel sharts. I hope this review and book have encouraged you to think more broadly about what might help you communicate in a way that engages.

Finally, congratulations to Matt Baker, John Andrews and their team or contributors. Given the volume of information that has been condensed, this must at times of been a labour of love. They are to be congratulated on the result. An accessible engaging new resource that should help a new generation see our shared history with fresh eyes. Well done.

So. over to you dear reader. What will you create next to help your audience see more data with fresh eyes?