Herbert Bayer’s World Geo-Graphic Atlas Anticipated the Age of Infographics – Eye on Design
Herbert Bayer’s name is perhaps most closely associated with the Bauhaus—he was a student at the school and later a teacher of advertising and typography until it closed in 1928—but he had a prolific and diverse career up until he died. He worked as a commercial advertising designer in Berlin for nearly ten years, where applications of Bauhaus theory are apparent in his work through the use of sans serif fonts, primary colors and photomontage. When the Nazi regime gained power, he emigrated to the United States in 1938, like so many others associated with the Bauhaus had done.
Once in New York City, Bayer continued his work as a designer with the Museum of Modern Art, well-known magazines, large department stores and prominent ad agencies. By the early 1940s, he had become a consultant—and later the chairman of the design department—for the Container Corporation of America (CCA), a manufacturer of corrugated boxes led by industrialist Walter Paepcke. Paepcke shared Bayer’s vision for collaboration between the artist and the corporate culture, an extension of Bayer’s continued realization of the Bauhaus principles, that includes functional design through the use of minimalism, simplicity, and experimental layouts. During his 40 years at CCA, Bayer incorporated these principles into his designs for the company.
To commemorate CCA’s 25th anniversary in 1953, Bayer designed the World Geo-Graphic Atlas: A Composite of Man’s Environment—one of his lesser-known and mostly overlooked works—as a gift to CCA’s employees, customers, colleges and universities. The atlas, providing a view of a post-World War II world, is a symbol of 20th-century modernist book design that serves as a precursor to current trends in information design and an example of how complex data can be made accessible.
A large book in scale, 368 pages and 56 x 40 cm (22” x 16”), the graphic design elements contained in the Atlas are unmistakably Bayer’s style, using once again the Bauhaus ideals of the unity of art, craft, and technology.” The design of the pages in the World Geo-Graphic Atlas utilized a structured grid system that balanced the design and information elements on the page, including topographic maps mainly from Rand McNally or Goode’s School Atlas. It also incorporated physical and political maps, thematic maps, illustrations of products and resources, cross-sections of land, data tables, charts, pictograms, graphs and diagrams.
Bayer wanted the atlas to be a new type of narrative that allowed the viewer to interpret geographic information visually—and to create visualizations of complex data. The atlas was the first to incorporate data as visualizations, where Bayer took what might have been overwhelming amounts of scientific, geologic, and population data and presented it as visualizations or illustrations. This type of information storytelling had long-range implications for the design of future atlases, as designers could display data illustratively. “Most people have occasion to use and study an atlas. It is our hope that this one, quite different from any other atlas we know about, will give information and enjoyment,” Paepcke wrote in the Atlas’s forward. “It is important that we know more about the geography and the conditions of life of our neighbor[s] in the world so that we may have a better understanding of other peoples and nations.”
To assemble the vast amounts of information needed, he did his own research collecting data and traveling extensively throughout Europe to find relevant maps. He researched atlases, wrote and edited the text and created thousands of infographics. He organized and illustrated the data and maps, including representations of the cosmos, census statistics, transportation and communication systems, and weather and wind patterns. (Figures 07–10)
The Atlas was considered a triumph of the Bauhaus ideology of clarity put into practice. It was called the “first ‘American’ atlas that properly belongs in the category of great world atlases.” Designers and others are often surprised to learn of this particular Atlas, especially because they are aware of Bayer’s other important works and his notoriety with the Bauhaus. The lack of recognition may lie in the fact that the book had a very limited distribution, and was never sold commercially, with only 30,000 copies produced. Herbert Bayer—and The Container Corporation —offered a unique viewpoint on the usefulness of an atlas, originally as a marketing tool, but even more significantly as an opportunity to show the world the versatility of exceptional design. Bayer himself considered the World Geo-Graphic Atlas to be one of his greatest achievements.