The hardest part about designing a genealogical chart is legibility. If it includes more than four generations, there are too many boxes on the page causing the type to be too small to read. The graphic illustration might be beautiful, but it fails in communication.
With less than 20 names on a chart, the type can be large enough to read. Yet, this also fails in communication because most charts have more than 20 names. To divide the data into several chart components, connecting like a puzzle, adds another complexity, and again, is not user-friendly. As a historical illustrator, the information design challenge confronts me everyday in genealogy projects. Each person that I work with, if tracing lineage back to prior to 1800, confronts this difficulty.
It is not surprising that small 18th century villages had families that intertwined through marriages. The “ancestor loss” dictates the structure of the chart, whereas databases simply use double entry. These genealogical knots are where I begin a chart design, as this example from the Schmitt family demonstrates.
Genealogy charts become huge fast, as generations expand. “Alliances of Ironworkers” has 13 participants in three generations (it does not include all the siblings or show other spousal surnames, focusing only on three: Schmitt, Driessler, and Dellwo from the Rhineland’s Züscher-Hammer ironworks).
Through adding three more generations, there are 34 names in chart “Interlinking Ironworkers,” which goes from 1700 (when they all arrived in one place) to the 1850s. In this design, by making the circles into ovals, I saved half of the vertical space. This changes the overall shape of the chart from a square to a horizontal rectangle, which fits onscreen.
Portraying the relationships of three families out (from the ten introduced in “Ore and Origins”) the result is that the immigrant generation in the mid 1800s were all cousins—many double cousins and some triple. I profile their history in “Dedication and Definition” where I add the next generations.
A Schmitt relative recently sent me a message: “How are you related to me?” I found I could not answer him without a chart, because he is a triple fifth cousin! Many cousins do not know the family history back to Germany. (I didn’t either until the data started coming online a few years ago.) This is very sad to me because it is through our ancestors that we know who we are. To lose that is to lose an important part of ourselves. Finding the story in the experiences gained through ten generations is a precious gift that not many people can claim—though now they can if they want to. It does take an acceptance of both the positive and the negative—do we believe that some things are worth forgetting? I hope that this story inspires a wish to know more, so that the wisdom gained is not lost.—always inspired, Liane
Please see the overview of the series “Ore and Origins: A Biography.”
Please enjoy other examples of my chart design portfolio.
Liane Sebastian wears an artist’s hat, designer’s coat, and editor’s shoes.