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Teaching without words

Examples from 1946 demostrating how an image can be self-explanatory

January 16, 2013

With the constant evolution of information visualization, a number of designations started to appear: infographics, data viz, information design, just to mention a few. Even so, there are some definitions that are widely accepted and put into practice  and among those I quote one that is perfectly suitable for journalistic infographics: .

Text + image complete each other, are inseparable. Self -explanatory and self-reliant.

Tattiana Teixeira, professor at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina – UFSC, in a recent interview to Daniele Silva (from the Brazilian blog  Impressão Digital 126), stated:

“The journalistic infographic  tells a story. Text + image are complementary and inseparable. Explanatory and self-sufficient, the infographics help make understandable to the reader what the written text can not explain.”

I agree with this statement, and I rule this premise to think of my infographics. To produce a journalistic  infographic, it is imperative that  you are objective with the information.

The text needs an image, because without it it’s useless to explain.

But can we explain something without the text? Does the image need a text to explain something??

I believe that would be an interesting topic to discuss…

I found a beautiful example of a non-journalistic infographic that managed that 66 years ago.

During the II World War , numerous factories stopped their production to make military artifacts. Singer was one of those companies, that held its traditional production to supply the U.S. military machine .

When the war was over, the recovering period ahead was filled with challenges  and the companies had limited resources to restart their activities. You had to be very efficient.

This brief explanation was just to put in context a communication solution using information visualization that Singer adopted.

Capa do manual da máquina da Singer 1946


Singer produced (and produces) sewing machines and needed to make up for the lost time. In 1946, it released a model that would be sold globally, the Singer 15c75, and it was necessary to produce manuals in various languages.

That meant:.

Create a manual, write, draw, and print and translated into all languages where the machines were going to be sold, implying in extra costs to send photolithographs, hire translators, reprint, and so on.

A sewing machine in those days was a means of survival for many families. And as most users of sewing machines were women this meant an extra problem: global illiteracy.

However, the company was able to develop a process of communication that reached everyone, regardless of language or schooling. The system consisted using self-explanatory images – if it was today, they would probably be considered infographics.

Information on product use, lubrication and advanced techniques reached such a clarity hard to find even today.

The manual’s index shows  all stages of the use  – with images
Here we see how to fill the secondary line spool, note the caution in lowering the tone of the illustrations, so that the line (in red) and the movements could be understood. The red dots show the order of steps, dispensing numbers.


An important detail in the picture above  is that there are no scales between the hand and the object. This choice privileged information and functionality, and the use of a scale would disturb the vision process.

The same didactic process applied to other preparation steps for the use of the machine.
This step demonstrates different needle sizes and the correct way to change them.
A double-page infographic explains how to adjust the needle for different tissue shapes and thicknesses
The part about cleaning and lubrication shows how simplicity can be efficient to communicate.

By “reading” this manual, I managed to understand the concepts and features of the machine even not having any knowledge in sewing.

We should always be looking out and  researching other solutions, rethinking our narrative form as these examples demonstrate that an image can be self-explanatory, and proves that in many cases a picture is really worth more than a thousand words.


Written by Gerson Mora

Infographic designer and researcher