Getting Minard to Spin in his Grave

Gentle readers, permit me to request your participation in Cartastrophe’s very first Redesign Competition!

Charles Joseph Minard’s famed carte figurative of Napoleon’s march to Moscow is considered by quite a number of people to be one of the finest maps ever produced. It’s elegant, it’s clever, and it’s clear. Tufte said that it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”

Click for a much larger version

High praise for an impressive work, certainly, but I want to challenge the cartographic community to see if they can improve upon Minard’s effort. To be fair, I haven’t the faintest idea if I have enough readers to make this work. But I’m going to give it a try.

I hope you will consider submitting a redesign of Minard’s map to me at cartastrophic@gmail.com, by June 1st, 2010. Please include a short bit of text describing your design —  inspirations, what you changed or improved upon and why, etc. I will review them all and post the best examples on this very website. As an enticement, I am offering a fabulous prize: A grab-bag of free maps from the Arthur Robinson Map Library, which regularly sheds parts of its collection. I am a graduate student, so I am afraid I cannot offer much more than that (though, if you feel like being a generous donor and offering up your own prize, let me know).

Feel free to use whatever resources are at your disposal, and to take this project in whatever direction you may prefer, so long as it remains a map (rather than an aspatial infographic) and contains the same data as the original (you may add more data if you think it necessary and relevant). A simple web search turns up a lot of good material on Minard and this map, including a number of re-designs, though most are rather unimpressive.

For those of you like me who have no idea what any of those words on the map mean, here’s a link to an English translation of the original French. I found it on the Internet, so it must be accurate!

Minard’s design is indeed excellent, and deserves the praise he has received, but it is not perfect. So let’s see what we can do with it.

Please spread the word about this competition — the more people involved, the better!


15 Responses to “Getting Minard to Spin in his Grave”

  1. 2 Bill
    18th March, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    The Emperor wears no clothes. If you have to write a paragraph to explain it, it doesn’t belong on a single graph.

    Sez me, but I’m looking at this as a scientist, not a cartographer. JMO.


    • 3 chris
      19th March, 2010 at 7:31 am

      Hmmm.read any journals lately, lots of explanation of graphs and data! lol

      • 4 Bill
        19th March, 2010 at 6:26 pm

        Yes. Journals are devoted to entire articles that explain the graphs and data. This is not a journal.

        Look, I’m just saying I disagree with the conventional wisdom that hails this as the pinnacle of clarity in data presentation. I think the contrary is true. Just because it’s loaded with information doesn’t mean it easily gets its point across. I realize I’m in the minority here.




    • 22nd March, 2010 at 12:35 pm

      I could not disagree more, but I think your sentiment is close to the truth, just slightly misplaced. I would argue that it is not the verbal explanation (or lack of) that marks a graph or statistical map as effective but its ability to communicate its data without the need to also tabularize that data.

      Minards map is both specific in its measured depiction of troop loss as well as general and emotional in how well it tells the story of catastrophic loss without the reader needing to see the real numbers.

      Additionally, just because Minard included a lengthy description doesn’t mean the map needed it. I think you could get away with a simple legend and perhaps a brief note on his alteration of history (ie the separation of troops at Minsk and Mikilow).

      His paragraph is in reality nothing more than what most cartographers would include on any statistical map (a legend, scale, sources and notation on changes to the data), its juts in paragraph form rather than visual.

      • 6 Daniel Huffman
        22nd March, 2010 at 12:42 pm

        This may be a question for someone who is versed in cartographic history, but I wonder if a legend statement wasn’t an option in 1869? It could well be that modern readers have become more literate with legends and other interpretation guides. Perhaps Minard’s audience would have been unfamiliar with the idea, thus he needed to be more verbose than a modern designer would be.

        Again, not sure about that one, but it seems a viable explanation.

  2. 8 Robin
    20th March, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    this sounds awesome. i’m in.

  3. 9 Lurker
    11th April, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Darn! They already took my idea of converting that bizarre temperature scale to C/F…

  4. 10 Rdm
    10th February, 2011 at 1:26 am

    For a map that took me quite a while to figure out, I have to side with Bill. It’s not easy to figure out if these odd angled lines represent locations or trends–it’s not obvious that they do both, but show neither very clearly.

    Tufte et al. are maybe overimpressed with the data density….

  5. 11 sgtnasty
    19th May, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Were any results ever published for this?

    • 12 Daniel Huffman
      19th May, 2012 at 10:54 pm

      Sadly, no one entered, though there were some folks interested at the time. I made a quiet mention of the failure in a later post.


  6. 13 dwight
    27th August, 2012 at 8:51 am

    ESRI got someone to update this using ArcGIS, and I thought the results looked pretty good. It’s in their latest mapbook, did you get a look at it?

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