February 12, 2016

Infographics — fusing pictures and data since World War II

It seems that infographics are all the rage these days, but are they just a passing media fashion? A survey of material in our archives reveals examples created for the Kaiser shipyard workforce as early as 1943.

"On to Berlin" competition, Kaiser Swan Island, 1944

It seems that infographics are all the rage these days, but are they just a passing media fashion? After all, the term itself didn’t appear until around 1973 as a slice of the broader information representation pie known as data visualization. But a survey of material in our archives reveals examples created for the Kaiser shipyard workforce as early as 1943, placing Kaiser communicators at the forefront of media cool.

The two weekly shipyard newspapers — Fore ‘n Aft in Richmond, Calif., and The Bos’n’s Whistle in the Portland, Ore., area —  printed items that would certainly qualify as infographics by today's standards. Then, as now, the purpose was to make data more compelling to a reader and ideally draw him or her into a deeper understanding of events or issues.

"Increase in employment of women: 3 Kaiser yards," Bos'n's Whistle, June 7, 1943

One simple example from 1943 portrays the dramatic increase in employment of women in the Oregon and Washington shipyards. Like effective infographics of today, it was an attractive part of a bigger article.

Another, published for Richmond shipyard workers towards the end of the war, examines more complex data by comparing the average length of a patient’s stay between 1943 and 1944 in three settings – the Kaiser shipyard industrial health care plan, the Kaiser supplemental nonindustrial health care plan, and private plans.

1945 infographic illustrating lenghth of hospital stays
Hospital stay infographic, Fore ‘n’ Aft, 1945

But photographs of the yards reveal another creative format for infographics — large, public displays. Some of these were used to promote the “healthy competition” for which Henry J. Kaiser was famous. These three are from the Swan Island shipyard in Portland, Ore.

'Mechanical Joe' war bond drive, Kaiser Swan Island, 1944
"Mechanical Joe" war bond drive, Kaiser Swan Island, 1944

“Who will eat turkey? Who will eat beans?” notes the high stakes in the good-natured challenge. “Mechanical Joe” adds real 3-D component to the information presented, and “On to Berlin” puts many departments on track to smash the Axis center.

All of these were creative and clever approaches to making routine numbers interesting and relevant — a tradition Kaiser Permanente carries forward to this day.

'Who will eat turkey? Who will eat beans' competition outdoor infographic, 1944
"Who will eat turkey? Who will eat beans?" competition, 1944, Kaiser Swan Island. The T-2 tanker is the SS Nickajack Trail at her outfitting dock; in 1946 she ran aground at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific while attempting to rescue two Japanese ships destined as targets for the first postwar US atom bomb test “Able.” Her wreck is still there.