Florence Nightingale spent two years during the Crimean war working at an Army hospital located in Scutari, Turkey. Despite her team’s efforts to keep their patients well fed and clean, thousands of soldiers died within months of their arrival. According to author Hugh Small, author of A Brief History of Florence Nightingale: and Her Real Legacy, a Revolution in Public Health, her work at Scutari was largely a failure (Small, 2010).

When she returned to England after the war, she was determined to address what had happened. She gathered statistics, wrote a report, and created a corresponding visual synopsis of what had happened there.


She used three colors to represent the deaths that occurred during that time:

  • red for deaths from battle wounds
  • blue for deaths caused by preventable or infectious diseases, and
  • black for deaths from all other causes

Her diagram clearly shows how more British soldiers died as a result of poor sanitation in hospitals than from battle wounds, evidenced by the greater amount of blue area versus red and black (Zymotic disease, 2019).

“She saw a clear relationship between the diseases killing her patients and the filth in which they lay, the air they breathed, the water they drank, and the food they ate. To Nightingale, the greatest tragedy of the Crimean War was the British Army’s failure, through bureaucratic inertia, to protect the soldiers’ health or to assist in their recovery” (Gill & Gill, 2005). 

She used her powerful diagram as a weapon in a political battle to encourage funding to improve sanitation conditions in British cities during the late 1800s.


Nightingale played a pivotal role in the 1875 Public Health Act, which required landlords to connect their dwellings to public sewer mains. It is estimated that this improvement in housing conditions contributed to a rise in average life expectancy, which increased from 40 to 60 years (Small, 2019).

Infographics vs. Data Visualization

Is Florence Nightingale’s famous diagram an infographic or a data visualization? The two terms are often used interchangeably, but there’s an important distinction. Let’s take a look at both.

In her article Getting it right: why infographics are not the same as data visualizations, user experience designer Valinda Chan provides the following definitions:

Infographics are visual representations of facts, events or numbers that reflect patterns and align to a story” (2017).

Data visualizations are visual representations of data abstracted into a schematic form so that the audience can more easily process the information and get a clear idea about the data at a glance” (2017). 

The bolded text is mine. Still confused? Let’s boil it down a little further.

  • Infographics tell a story.
  • Data visualizations present the data for your processing.

As Ms. Chan points out, the difference is subjective vs. objective.

“Infographics tell a premeditated story to guide the audience to conclusions (subjective). Data visualizations let the audience draw their own conclusions (objective)” (Chan, 2017).

That brings us back to my original question. Is Florence Nightingale’s graph an infographic or a data visualization?

Let’s look at some other inspiring examples that might help you decide.

Saving Lives

“Without oxygen, brain damage can occur in as little as 4 to 6 minutes” (U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d.).

In 1974, Dr. Henry Heimlich invented a procedure destined to save many lives. By using an abdominal thrust, a bystander can clear an object from a choking victim, allowing them to once again breathe freely. The procedure became widely known as the Heimlich maneuver.

In 1978, New York City Mayor Ed Koch signed into law a bill requiring restaurants to post “a sign graphically depicting the Heimlich maneuver or a comparable technique instructing how to dislodge food from a choking person” (Choking Victim; Poster—Social Design Notes, 2002).

NYC Mayor Ed Koch and Dr. Henry Heimlich demonstrate how a choking victim should signal for help (Farrington, 2016)

As a result of this legislation, this poster was created and distributed to restaurateurs at the time they received their New York City restaurant license. A similar version is still available today from New York City’s website.

According to Dr. Heimlich, his invention (and the accompanying instructions) has saved the lives of more than 50,000 people (Croft, 2016).

Do you think the poster is an infographic or data visualization?

Taking Action to Stop Sexual Harassment

“The experience of harassment can feel like choking” – Karen Liebowitz (Pesce, 2018).

According to a 2018 article in MoneyWatch, as many as 90% of women and 70% of men in the service industry “experience some form of sexual harassment” (Pesce, 2018). Restaurateur Karen Leibowitz and graphic artist Kelli Anderson co-created this public service announcement that provides advice for service industry workers who may be victims of sexual harassment.

Sexual Harassment PSA created by Karen Leibowitz and Kelli Anderson

It lays out four points of action, accompanied by supporting text that provides specific advice on how to respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. The message is clear: you are not powerless.

“They toyed with including more text, or running a longer list of anything that could be considered sexual harassment, but realized the most effective PSA would be short and to the point” (Pesce, 2018).

Look familiar? It’s fashioned after the Heimlich choking poster; same colors, same layout, and similar fonts.

“We want people to do a double-take and to read it, instead of tuning it out” (Kelli Anderson, quoted in Pesce, 2018).

The creators have made this effective PSA available as a free download in both English and Spanish versions.

Infographic or data visualization?

Eradicating Malaria

For the past six years, Bill Gates has used his blog GatesNotes to bring attention to malaria. His goal? To eradicate Malaria worldwide.

Each April during “Mosquito Week” Gates provides up-to-date information and visuals to heighten awareness of the dangers of this deadly disease.

(Gates, 2014)

Did the large block of red at the bottom capture your attention? The artists’ choice to use red to represent the number of deaths by mosquitos tugs at you emotionally. According to Ellen Lupton in her book Design is Storytelling, “research suggests that reds, yellows, and oranges tend to prompt an activated, energized state of mind in users” (2017).

This visual also uses the Gestalt principle of simplicity. “The law of simplicity indicates that our mind perceives everything in its simplest form” (Bushe, 2015). The visuals tell us mosquitos are killing people — a lot of people.

A smaller version, posted on Gates’ Twitter account, is shown below. It’s a condensed visual synopsis designed specifically for social media, linking the user back to Gates’ blog.

The artist’s use of the mosquito successfully delivers a triple play of emotion for the viewer (Norman & Ortony, 2003):

  • visceral (wow, that’s a big mosquito)
  • behavioral (this problem is bigger than I thought)
  • reflective (this needs to be addressed)

In addition to his blog, Gates also shares his Mosquito Week campaign on YouTube and Instagram. Visuals abound.

” … a massive shift has happened in the way we communicate online, especially with Social Media.  We are now, in reality, using Visual Social Media to share our message” (Moritz, 2012).

What do you think? Infographic or data visualization?

Visuals in Academic Publications

Here’s another health-based example, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM).

As I was researching infographics for this post, the following search result appeared:

Entry number one is the journal article, while entry number two is classified as an infographic. The goal of the review was to “scope the literature and present what is known, and highlight what is not known, about walking and mental health” (Kelly et al., 2019).

Beside writing about the good news that there is “strong evidence that walking can prevent and treat depression and anxiety,” the authors of Walking on sunshine chose to include a visual synopsis to summarize their findings (Kelly et al., 2019).

Look closely at the bottom left hand corner. It reads:

This infographic is based on a scoping review of walking and mental health. We looked at 13,014 studies and analysed 50 of them. This was published in June 2018 in BJSM.

It’s clearly labelled as an infographic, but does it meet the criteria? Does it align to a story?

Best in Show

Is your breed of dog:

  • inexplicably overrated
  • rightly ignored
  • an overlooked treasure, or a
  • “hot dog”

Take a look and see where your dog ranks.

(McCandless, n.d.)

Here’s the criteria that was used to plot each breed that appears on the four part grid.

This one seems clear to me, but what do you think?

How Prepared Are They?

In this example, the artists used items commonly associated with college students to convey how well high schools had prepared college freshmen them for their college level studies.

(Hyperakt, n.d.)

This one’s a little trickier. Does it tell a specific story? Are they adequately prepared?

Visuals on a Smaller Scale

The Annals of Surgery is a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal of surgical science. In July 2016, the publication adopted the use of visual abstracts in an effort to improve dissemination of their publications (Ibrahim, Lillemoe, Klingensmith, & Dimick, 2017).

Visual abstracts are small scale graphics that provide a summary of the abstract portion of an article or professional journal. “Similar to the actual text abstract of a research article, it is meant to convey the key findings of the article in a shorter format” (Ibrahim, 2016).

Here’s an example based on a 2019 study that shows that women are more likely to be warned that they should avoid pursuing a career as a surgeon due to their gender.

Not surprisingly, visual abstracts are often used on social media. Here’s a screenshot of the Annals of Surgery’s Facebook page, which shows how visual abstracts are used to encourage their online community to keep abreast of current findings. A link to the journal article is, of course, included.

“To date, more than 75 journals and institutions have adopted the visual abstract in their dissemination strategy including the CDC, BMJ, JAMA and NEJM” (Ibrahim, 2016).

  • Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
  • British Medical Journal (BMJ)
  • Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
  • New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)

“The visual representation of science can increase both the engagement of fellow researchers [and] the public” (Cressey, 2014).

Story or data?

Let’s do one more. This one’s personal.

Mobilized for Safety

@French_gov – Image of the French government’s official Twitter account

Immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, the French government issued this visual on social media. My daughter was living in Paris at the time, considering whether or not it was safe to attend the Republican marches scheduled for January 11th. A Facebook group from her school shared this message, originally issued on Twitter by the French government. Translated to English, the title reads 2,200 security personnel mobilized for your safety.

You don’t need to know how to read French to figure this out. You can see there will be:

  • 150 plain clothes policemen
  • 24 mobile units
  • 20 elite forces
  • 56 motorcycle units
  • 1350 military personnel
  • 2000 police officers

When my daughter saw this, she said it made her feel safe.

On January 11, 2015 she marched with an estimated 1.5 million people who joined world leaders in the unity rally (CNN Library, 2018). You can check out a stunning photo essay of the march here.

Last one. What do you think?

Persuasion or Information?

“Infographics, even the ones that have cold, hard facts at their core, resemble marketing more closely than they do science, and depend more on classical techniques of rhetoric (the art of persuasion) than on more abstract appeals to reason” (Hart, 2013).

In short, Hart believes that infographics persuade.

Which visual examples were designed to persuade you? Here’s my list.

  1. Florence Nightingale’s Diagram of the Causes of Mortality
  2. New York City’s Choking Poster
  3. Leibowitz and Anderson’s Sexual Harassment Poster
  4. Bill Gates’ World’s Deadliest Animals
  5. The French government’s Mobilized for Safety announcement

Nightingale’s diagram, along with Gates’ poster and the French Safety message may look like data visualizations, but I don’t believe they are. Based on their back stories, we know their visuals were designed to send a persuasive message.

  • Florence Nightingale created her diagram to fight a political battle.
  • Bill Gates aims to raise awareness about Malaria.
  • The French government sent a message of safety after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Pure Data

Ready or Not, Here I Am tells you college freshmens’ opinions on how well high school prepared them for college. It’s eye catching and interesting, but it’s data, pure and simple. No rhetoric.

The same applies to Barriers to Pursuing a Career in Surgery. It tells a story of how women in medicine struggle with stereotypes, but it’s not designed to make you take action.

Less Clear

The last two are head scratchers.

According to the written abstract, the objective of the review that resulted in the Walking for Mental Health visual was this:

“We aimed to scope the literature and present what is known, and highlight what is not known, about walking and mental health” (Kelly et al., 2019).

Their conclusion?

“The evidence base that suggests walking benefits mental health is growing, but remains fragmented and incomplete for some important outcomes. Policy and national guidelines should promote the known mental health benefits of increased walking and future research should directly address the gaps we have identified” (Kelly et al., 2019).

It hasn’t been distributed beyond publication in the BJSM, so it doesn’t appear that it was designed to be persuasive. I think it’s a data visualization, but it also sends a message that could be interpreted as persuasive.

That leaves Best in Show.

At face value, it does not appear to be persuasive. You might consult the visualization the next time you’re in the market, but its intent is not to make you run out and buy a dog.

The fact that it was sponsored by the American Kennel Club, however, implies they might like you to consider buying a purebred dog the next time you consider bringing a four-legged companion into your home. Hard to tell.

Catalysts for Change

We can argue about what category they fall into, but I think you’ll agree that infographics and data visualizations are powerful vehicles that can serve as catalysts for change.

Text and numbers “cannot convey information in as memorable or digestible form as that of successful visual-based storytelling” (Losowsky, 2011, as cited in Klanten, Ehmann, & Schulze, 2011).

The visual examples we explored effectively used design principles to captivate their viewer’s attention. Whether it’s intentional or not, they can inspire us to take action, take control of a difficult situation, or support an important cause.

Florence Nightingale’s Message

(BBC Four, 2010)

“There are some very important problems that don’t get worked on naturally. That is, the market does not drive the scientists, the communicators, the thinkers, the governments to do the right things. And only by paying attention to these things, and having brilliant people who care and draw other people in can we make as much progress as we need to” (Gates, 2013).

until nxt time …


Annals of Surgery—Home. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/annalsofsurgery/?__tn__=%2Cd%2CP-R&eid=ARBq9oL-hZUGDdeN_BaC8tVRhbHbQeAO-iB4OY-xFH_UiWGwuFKAk020YMbAunDKrb4UJl6VZQ5UpPDu

BBC Four. (2010). Florence Nightingale’s diagram. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3y-Nhlhkpg&t=2s

Bushe, L. (2015, October 5). Simplicity, symmetry and more: Gestalt theory and the design principles it gave birth to. Retrieved from: https://www.canva.com/learn/gestalt-theory/ (Modile 2)

CNN Library (2018, December 24). 2015 Charlie Hebdo Attacks Fast Facts. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2015/01/21/europe/2015-paris-terror-attacks-fast-facts/index.html

Chan, V. (2017, June 13). Getting it right: Why infographics are not the same as data visualizations. Retrieved from: https://blog.prototypr.io/getting-it-right-why-infographics-are-not-the-same-as-data-visualizations-a23da7de745e

Chandler, V. (2019, November 19). Women more likely to be warned away from surgery careers due to gender. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-education-idUSKBN1XT2UN

Choking Victim; Poster—Social Design Notes. (2002, August 16). Retrieved from: https://backspace.com/notes/2002/08/choking-victim-poster.php

Creedon, A. (2014, May 1). Forget Sharks! Gates Draws Blood (and Attention) with Mosquito Week. Retrieved from: https://nonprofitquarterly.org/forget-sharks-gates-draws-blood-and-attention-with-mosquito-week/

Cressey, D. (2014, March 19). Infographics: Truth is beauty. Nature 507, 304–305 (2014) doi:10.1038/507304a

Croft, J. (2016, December 19). Heimlich maneuver inventor dies at 96. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/17/us/henry-heimlich-dies-invented-maneuver-to-save-people-from-choking/index.html

Darling, K. (n.d.). What Is an Infographic? And How Is it Different from a Data Visualization? Retrieved from: https://visme.co/blog/what-is-an-infographic/

Duffy, D. (n.d.). Restaurants and the Heimlich Maneuver. Retrieved from: https://www.cga.ct.gov/2004/rpt/2004-R-0596.htm

Farrington, D. (2016, May 28). Dr. Heimlich Uses His Maneuver At Retirement Home, Saves 87-Year-Old Woman. Retrieved from: https://www.wgbh.org/news/2016/05/27/dr-heimlich-uses-his-maneuver-retirement-home-saves-87-year-old-woman

Gates, B. (2013). Mosquitos, malaria and education—Bill Gates—YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLkbWUNQbgk

Gates, B. (2014, April 25). The Deadliest Animal in the World. Retrieved from: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Most-Lethal-Animal-Mosquito-Week

Gates, B. (2014, April 29). Hey @SharkWeek, sharks are cool, but they’re not even close to being the deadliest animal: Http://b-gat.es/1itPGLY pic.twitter.com/aWjbnw46N4 [Tweet]. Retrieved December 4, 2019, from @BillGates website: https://twitter.com/BillGates/status/461143337228324864?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E461143337228324864&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fnonprofitquarterly.org%2Fforget-sharks-gates-draws-blood-and-attention-with-mosquito-week%2F

Gates, B. (2017, August 17). Bill Gates on Instagram: “#TBT to the time I willingly let mosquitoes drink my blood. Visit the link in my bio to learn more about the progress we’re making against….” Retrieved from: https://www.instagram.com/p/BX5ca4olbho/

Gates, B. (2019, April 15). These maps could point the way to stopping malaria. Retrieved from: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/These-maps-could-point-the-way-to-eradicating-malaria

Giantini Larsen, A. M., Pories, S., Parangi, S., & Robertson, F. C. (2019). Barriers to Pursing a Career in Surgery: An Institutional Survey of Harvard Medical School Students. Annals of Surgery, Publish Ahead of Print. https://doi.org/10.1097/SLA.0000000000003618

Gill, C. J., & Gill, G. C. (2005). Nightingale in Scutari: Her Legacy Reexamined. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 40(12), 1799–1805. https://doi.org/10.1086/430380

Hart, G. (2013, June 3). Effective Infographics: Telling Stories in the Tech Comm Context. Retrieved from: https://techwhirl.com/effective-infographics-telling-stories-in-the-technical-communication-context/

Heimlich maneuver inventor dies in Cincinnati. (2016, December 17). Retrieved December 5, 2019, from WCPO website: https://www.wcpo.com/news/local-news/hamilton-county/cincinnati/dr-henry-heimlich-inventor-of-famed-anti-choking-heimlich-maneuver-dies

Hyperakt. (n.d.). Ready Or Not, Here I Am | Visual.ly. Retrieved from /community/infographic/education/ready-or-not-here-i-am

Ibrahim, A. M. (2016, December). Visual Abstract. Retrieved from: https://www.surgeryredesign.com/resources

Ibrahim, A. M., Lillemoe, K. D., Klingensmith, M. E., & Dimick, J. B. M. (2017, December). Visual Abstracts to Disseminate Research on Social Media: A Prospective, Case-control Crossover Study. Annals of Surgery266(6). https://doi.org/10.1097/SLA.0000000000002277

Kelly, P., Williamson, C., Hunter, R., Niven, A. G., Mutrie, N., & Richards, J. (2019). [Infographic]. Walking on sunshine: Scoping review of the evidence for walking and mental health. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(14), 903. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-100289

Klanten, R., Ehmann, S., & Schulze, F. (2011). Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language. Gestalten. (Module 3)

Lupton, E. (2017). Design is Storytelling. New York, NY: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. (Module 2)

McCandless, D. (n.d.). Best in Show – What’s the best dog breed, according to data? – Information is Beautiful. Retrieved from: https://informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/best-in-show-whats-the-top-data-dog

Moritz, D. (2012, December 15). The Shift to Visual Social Media—6 Tips for Business [Infographic]. Retrieved from: https://sociallysorted.com.au/shift-to-visual-social-media-6-tips-for-business-infographic/ (Module 5)

Norman, D.A. & Ortony, A. (2003). Design and Users: Two perspectives on emotion and design, Foundations of Interaction Design, Ivrea, Italy, November 2003. (Module 2)

Pesce, N. L. (2018, May 13). The women behind this viral new sexual harassment PSA tell Moneyish why they drew from those choking posters—MarketWatch. Retrieved from: https://www.marketwatch.com/amp/story/guid/AE9F7214-94F2-4EC4-8C59-0E00F7F51904

Radiolab. (2013, March 5). An Illustrated History of Heimlich | Radiolab. Retrieved from: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/273556-illustrated-history-heimlich

Radiolab Podcast. (2016). Radiolab – Shorts: The Man Behind the Maneuver [Henry Heimlich]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKRhhKU7JmE

Reuters. (2016, December 19). Henry Heimlich, Developer Of Maneuver To Save Choking Victims, Dead At 96. Retrieved from: https://www.news18.com/news/lifestyle/health-and-fitness-henry-heimlich-developer-of-maneuver-to-save-choking-victims-dead-at-96-1324755.html

Small, H. (2010, October 7). Did Nightingale’s ‘Rose Diagram’ save millions of lives? Retrieved from: http://www.florence-nightingale-avenging-angel.co.uk/?p=462

Small, H. (2019, December 1). Her wartime hospital. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLnveZHaGXU2lRMH9Y0bjq1X9DVD0MBaYE&time_continue=507&v=JcwiJT4hX4o&feature=emb_logo

Sweet, V. (2014, March 3). Far More Than a Lady With a Lamp. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/health/florence-nightingales-wisdom.html

U.S. National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Abdominal thrusts: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000047.htm

Zymotic disease. (2019). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Zymotic_disease&oldid=904866960

Header image by Michael Schwarzenberger from Pixabay

Written by

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *