Should we meet our heroes?

A couple of years ago I found myself trying to work out why I’m such an avid visual thinker. Is it nature, nurture or both?

To tackle the nurture question (addressing nature seems altogether tougher) I worked back through my early memories, trying to recall early thoughts, experience and ideas. Other than an obsession with Lego (I spent hours and hours designing, building, creating – probably a portent on both software engineering and entrepreneurial tendencies), I was struggling to determine any specific events. I thought about books – the earliest I can recall was Richard Scarry’s “What Do People Do All Day” (very visual) – and then it hit me.

The Book of Comparisons.

Of course! I had spent hours, days, whole weekends poring over the facts, visual tables (think ordered bar charts) and incredible illustrations. I learned about the humongously large, the minutely small, the fleetingly fast, the loftily tall, the weightily heavy, the gossamer light and the unfathomably deep – animals, plants, planets, people, man-made structures, machines and devices. It was an incredibly memorable way to learn about the world: how a species of worm was over 33ft long and would stretch across 40+ pages; how a man had ridden a bike at over 200mph behind a huge spoiler fixed to a car; and how tsunamis taller than the Eiffel tower were possible… and no, I haven’t just looked those up – they are indelibly etched in my visual memory.

So, having remembered the book (and purchased a copy for my kids), I decided to find out about the people behind the book – The Diagram Group. From here I discovered Bruce Robertson – the editor at the time – and then the power of GMail connected me with him. After a few attempts to coax a lunch/interview with him, I’m set to meet him in person later this month. I can’t wait. We spoke on the phone earlier this week, and he started rolling out anecdotes about his time at ICI, working on infographics for the company newsletter, preparing visuals for government reports and set me to work on discovering the work of Otto Neurath. This last element is a fantastic example of synchronicity; I had never heard of Neurath when Bruce mentioned him, and then the same evening I discovered his work – and its impact – in Alberto Cairo’s recent book “The Functional Art” (also highly recommended).

“Words make division, pictures make connections…” – Otto Neurath

So expect another post by the end of the month, reporting on Bruce’s history of The Book and – undoubtedly – a collection of amusing anecdotes. Somehow, I think that meeting this hero will prove fascinating, enlightening and highly entertaining…


7 responses to “Should we meet our heroes?

  1. Hello! How did the meeting with Bruce go? I worked at Diagram for 6 years (early half of the 1980’s).

    • Mark

      Unfortunately the meeting never happened. Bruce and I exchanged a number of emails and phone calls, but he had to cancel our meeting on two occasions due to logistical challenges. I have to admit that I have all but given up, but your question has prompted me to try emailing Bruce again. Let’s hope that the meeting does take place.

      Did you get to work on The Book of Comparisons whilst you were at Diagram? I’d love to hear about it if you did!

      Best, Guy

    • Jamie

      Thank you for letting me know – failing to meet with Bruce will sit heavily with me for a long time; I don’t have many regrets in my life, but I now have one more. His work was a huge inspiration to me.



  2. Yet another ex Diagram employee (Ruth Midgley) is now picking up this strand. Last Saturday Mark Evans (see reply above) and I attended a memorial event for Bruce at Hampstead Town Hall, along with over a hundred other people – including his family, fellow students from the RCA, his own students from Chelsea School of Art, neighbours (including Michael Palin), numerous designers, artists and editors who had worked at or with Diagram over the years, and an information graphics academic at the University of the Arts, where the Diagram Archive is now housed so that another generation of students can study the Diagram way of doing things.
    I was Diagram’s first editor and worked there for 13 years – and yes I was the Editor of the Book of Comparisons!

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