What You Can Learn From A Woolly Mammoth
At eight years old I was presented with a book that would dramatically impact my life several times over. In my adolescent hands it was huge and heavy; its hard covers seemed to have existed forever. Most avid readers will fondly recount canonic classics or nostalgic favorites revisited again and again over the course of one’s life, each time extracting new meaning, relevance and insight. For me, it is not Shakespeare’s Drama, The Old Testament or 1984, but David Macauly’s The Way Things Work.
I hadn’t the slightest clue at the time that I would go on to study architecture and industrial design or that I would eventually work in a field regularly breaking down complex subject matter, often with visual storytelling. All I knew was that this was no “children’s book” and I immediately worshipped the ever-present Mammoth character that on each page illuminated some unseen, hidden clockwork in the surrounding world. The genius of this work, interestingly confirmed by Macauly’s recent MacArthur Fellowship (aka “genius” grant), is not only in what it seeks to achieve (i.e. demystifying the complex), but also in the sketch like style and effortless, often humorous tone with which it presents its topics. Over three hundred pages, it tackles explaining functional mechanics across a range of areas as broad as simple levers, a nuclear reactor core and digital memory systems with the same whimsical, yet content dense illustrations.
Nearly a quarter century later, the field of information visualization and the prevalence of infographics have exploded in both the academic and commercial arenas. For good reason, people commonly look to Edward Tufte, Nicolas Felton and Benjamin Fry for the modern foundation or novel reinterpretation of data display. With all the apparent innovations in the tools and techniques of advanced modeling, and as elegant as the results, I can’t help but ask-
Who will match the balance of expertise, clarity and joy David Macauly brought with only a pen and cartoon Mammoth?