Designstripe presents

The Books of Design

A content series telling the story of artists, movements and mediums that influenced the evolution of design, illustration and technology, and where they intersect.

Our second instalment celebrates W.E.B. Du Bois, the American sociologist and civil rights activist who used pioneering data visualization techniques to paint a nuanced picture of Black life in the US at the turn of the century and refute the racist dogma of the day.

The word "Negro" appears frequently in the images you'll see in this story. It’s not a word we take lightly, but it is the term Du Bois chose (and actually attempted to reclaim) throughout his career. This story is a celebration of his visionary work, and so we have chosen to not alter his charts and keep the text and titles as they are, while contextualizing his use of language.


W.E.B. Du Bois

The turn-of-the-century
infographic activist

Why Du Bois?

He understood the power of data

At designstripe, we value Du Bois’ belief in the radical power of visual information to tell stories, challenge ideas and change the world. His work is proof that you don’t need to be a designer to create powerful visual design, you just need a great story. With groundbreaking statistical graphics that anticipated the potential of data visualization, his work is nothing short of visionary.

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy (1907).
Introductory plate for Du Bois’ second study, “A series of statistical charts illustrating the condition of the descendants of former African slaves now in residence in the United States of America.”
Introductory plate for “The Georgia Negro,” one of the two studies prepared by Du Bois and his team for the Exposition Universelle in Paris (1900). Further plates will be identified only by their title, and are understood to have been created by Du Bois for the same exposition.

Chapter One Known for


Pioneering empirical sociological theory, research and data visualizations that illustrate and quantify the forces and effects of racial oppression in the decades following emancipation

(The color line)

In 1903, Du Bois opens The Souls of Black Folk, a foundational piece of Black protest literature, with the following diagnosis: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." Borrowed from abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the idea of the color line — a reference to the racial segregation that existed in the “separate-but-equal” United States after the abolition of slavery in 1865 — was central to much of Du Bois’ work as a civil rights activist. But it was in his earlier work as a pioneering sociologist that he first sought to measure, delineate and represent the color line through rigorous field work and visionary information design. In 1900, as head of the school of sociology at Atlanta University he founded, DuBois and a team of current and former students put together a series of 63 ground-breaking charts, graphs and maps designed to illustrate the evolution of Black life in the 35 years since emancipation for the Exposition Universelle in Paris. They formed two distinct studies meant to be viewed as a whole: one focused on Georgia, the state with the highest population of Black people; the second was national and international in scope. In her 2018 essay “The Cartography of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Color Line,” renowned architect and scholar Mabel O. Wilson writes that “these visualizations offer a prototype of design practices that were not widely utilized until more than a century later, anticipating the trends — now vital in our contemporary world — of design for social innovation, data visualization in service to social justice, and the decolonization of pedagogy.”

City and rural population. 1890.

The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Chapter Two Biography


February 23, 1868 (Great Barrington, Massachusetts) - August 27, 1963 (Accra, Ghana)

(A budding social reformer)

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, five years after the abolishment of slavery, in the early years of the Reconstruction era and as Jim Crow “separate-but-equal” laws were coming into effect. Despite being born in the North to a land-owning family that had been free for generations, the ubiquitous, infection racism of the day meant he faced discrimination early on. But he did well academically, and realized he could use his skills and knowledge to improve the lives of Black people.

(Academic and empirical researcher)

All though he had studied history at university — first at Fisk, a historically Black college in Nashville, Tennessee, then becoming the first Black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard — he was broadly trained in the social sciences. He pioneered empirical research through close inquiry into the lived conditions of Black people in America, and set up the country’s first school of sociology at Atlanta University.

(A pioneer of data visualization)

In 1900, prominent Black lawyer Thomas J. Calloway approached Du Bois to help him put together an exhibit for the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Assembled in four months with a budget of $15,000, “The Exhibit of American Negroes” celebrated Black life and the progress that had been made in the 35 years since the abolishment of slavery. It subverted the very premise of fairs like the Exposition Universelle, which usually represented non-white cultures as savages in need of civilization. And it did so using, among other assets, 60-plus handmade charts and graphs that, thanks to inventive, thoroughly contemporary composition and meticulous empirical research, were decades ahead of their time, and still resonate today. Du Bois described the project as “an honest straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves.”

Acres of land owned by Negroes in Georgia.

(Thought leader and activist)

For more than a decade, Du Bois had devoted himself to the sociological study of the Black experience in the US. But, in the face of increasing racial violence and unrest, he was becoming disillusioned with the ability of sociology to enact swift enough change. He left academia in 1910 to focus full time on activism, as a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its magazine, The Crisis, which he would edit until 1934.

(Socialist, Pan-Africanist, American-Ghanaian)

Viewing capitalism as one of the causes of systemic racism, Du Bois was a lifelong socialist. Over the decades, he would become increasingly disenchanted with the US government. In 1961, he joined the Communist Party and moved to Ghana. He died on August 27, 1963, one day before the famous March on Washington and one year before the Civil Rights Act passed, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Chapter Four Crafts


A technical look into how Du Bois subverted scientific racism through data visualization

Occupations of Negroes and whites in Georgia.


Sociology — In 1900, the study of sociology was in its infancy. “At this time,” sociologist Aldon Morris writes in his 2018 essay “American Negro at Paris, 1900,” “social scientific studies tended to have a social philosophy orientation unsupported by empirical data.” For the exhibit, Du Bois and his all-Black team of researchers executed meticulous empirical research using a network of field researchers across the South and drew on statistics from the US census and US Bureau of Labor reports. They created detailed charts and graphs featuring facts and figures about literacy, education, home ownership, population growth, income and net worth and more, designed to tell a story that pushed back against the dominant narrative of the day, namely scientific racism—that Black people were biologically inferior. Morris writes that “Du Bois demonstrated that social conditions trumped race in accounting for social inequality.”


Draftsmanship — Du Bois had just four months to compile and draft the charts before the opening of the Exposition Universelle in April of 1900. Further, he had to devise a way of working that could be standardized across his team of research assistants. Design scholar Jason Forrest believes that they likely developed a strict template for each letterform, and titles — written in all caps to ease consistency — were penciled in with a ruler before being filled in with ink. Curves on letters like “G” and “R” were reduced to a series of angles. And with printing out of the question, the charts had to be hand painted, possibly using George C. Osborne watercolour palettes which came in rich, vibrant primary hues, thus explaining the Mondrian-esque colour combinations. Some of the data portraits included French typography so as to appeal to the international audience at the Exposition. Silas Munro, the designer, educator and partner at leading-edge L.A. studio Polymode who wrote the rich captions for a 2018 compilation of the graphs, notes Du Bois’ prescience: “The colors, shapes and typography of the charts also foreshadow critical developments in the history of data visualization, including simplified pictographic form define in the Isotype picture language, minimal typographic palettes used by the International Typographic Style and visual narratives in chart form explained in the research of Edward Tufte.”


Information design — “Du Bois and his team used information design as a rhetorical device,” writes Silas Munro. “Many of the data portraits were mounted in large frames that allowed the audience to flip through them at eye level.” Beyond the story told by each individual chart, the series as whole was assembled with a specific reading order in mind that builds a narrative over time. Design scholar Jason Forrest even sees an element of interactivity in the exhibit. “Since most of the charts show similar types of data across international, national and state views,” he writes in his series of essays on the exhibit, “it’s likely that a jump from one chart to another was synonymous in Du Bois’ time to a “double-click” in ours.”

Slaves and free Negroes (in Georgia).
Proportion of freemen and slaves among American Negroes (in the US).

We made a most interesting set of drawings, limned on pasteboard cards about a yard square and mounted on a number of moveable standards. The details of finishing these 50 or more charts, in colors with accuracy, was terribly difficult with little money, limited time and not much encouragement.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Chapter Five Chronology



The story starts on the East Coast, in post-Emancipation America.

Five years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery, W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “Racism there was subtle and genteel,” writes contemporary sociologist and scholar Aldon Morris. Du Bois experiences racial discrimination at the local integrated school he attends, but he does well academically, and comes to believe he can use his knowledge and abilities to improve the lives African Americans, still suffering greatly under anti-Black Jim Crow laws.

Chapter Six Perception


How Du Bois’ data visualization has been seen by the press, his colleagues and contemporary artists and scholars

Gold medal award from the Exposition Universelle (1900). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
Pauperism among American Negroes.

(“It’s impossible to do justice to this exhibit in a few lines of descriptive matter”)

“The Exhibit of the American Negro” was tucked away in a corner of the multinational Pavilion of Social Economy—an entirely different building than the one that housed the main United States national building of the Paris Exhibition. Nevertheless, the exhibit was a critical and popular success, receiving thousands of visitors as well as two Grand Prix and more than a dozen other prizes, including a special gold medal for Du Bois. According to the official Exposition report, “there was no better example of the Exposition idea that exhibits must be made attractive and interesting.”

(“Proof that all classes of the American population are valuable citizens”)

Coverage in the wider press, however, depended entirely on the publication’s demographic. In the US, the Black press reported on the exhibit extensively and enthusiastically, recognizing it as a milestone in the fight for equal rights. The Appeal, one of the most successful Black newspapers of the turn of the century, wrote in October of 1900 that “this is the first time in the history of exposition abroad that the Afro-American has ever taken so important and successful a part,” proving “that all classes of [the American] population are prosperous, progressive and valuable citizens.”

(“Du Bois explored a subject that white America just didn’t care about”)

On the other hand, the white press in the US completely ignored the exhibit. Jason Forrest, a design scholar and the editor-in-chief of data visualization journal Nightingale, writes that in studying Black Americans, “Du Bois simply explored a subject that white America just didn’t care about — especially at the dawn of the 20th century.”

(“The scholar denied”)

But it wasn’t just the press that ignored Du Bois’ work — his own colleagues did too. Despite being a founding father of American sociology — leading cutting-edge empirical research decades ahead of his counterparts at the Chicago school of sociology — his contributions to his field have never been properly recognized. Renowned sociologist and scholar Aldon Morris, who wrote The Scholar Denied, an intricately researched book on Du Bois’ academic legacy, has said that through his methodology, his field work and his visionary theory of the self, “Du Bois was the first sociologist to articulate the agency of the oppressed.”

(“These were bold Black nationalist sentiments”)

In 2018, the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Princeton Architectural Press published Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. The book collected all of Du Bois’ infographics together for the first time alongside academic essays and rich captions for each chart, graph and map by noted contemporary scholars. In her essay “The Cartography of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Color Line,” architect and scholar Mabel O. Wilson notes the self-examination and self-determination inherent to the exhibit. “These were bold Black nationalist sentiments,” she writes. “The Black consciousness of a people who understood themselves in a particular time and place strongly refuted the notion that the African had no history, no civilization, and hence no culture.”

Negro business men in the United States.
Crime among American Negroes.

So far as the American world of science and letters was concerned, we never ‘belonged’; we remained unrecognized in learned societies and academic groups. We rated merely as Negroes studying Negroes, and after all, what had Negroes to do with America or science?

W.E.B. Du Bois

Chapter Seven Influences


Discover Du Bois' place in the history.

(Before Du Bois)

  • William Playfair (1759 – 1823)
  • Florence Nightengale (1820 – 1910)
  • Henry Gannet (1846 – 1914)

(After Du Bois)

  • Harlem Renaissance
  • Black Arts Movement
  • Data Visualization
  • Social Practice Arts

This is not the end of the book

A new story by designstripe Explore

  • Illustrator and painter

    Alphonse Mucha

    1860 - 1939

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