Saturday, October 24, 2009

What Does One Million Look Like?

So, you know the 2000 years that happened before the current millennium began? Well if you go back those 2 millennia, and then do that 499 more times, you’ll get to the year this Raquel Welch classic takes place.

Designers of information graphics often find themselves in the position of explaining large numbers. At the recent Society of News Design conference in Buenos Aires, I had the magnitude of numbers like million, billion and trillion conveyed to me by no less than three different infographics gurus. Nigel Holmes of Explanation Graphics was the keynote speaker and is the undisputed master of explaining magnitudes of time, space, and dollars. To check out his short animation from 2000 explaining the then $5.7 trillion national debt, go here and click on the first clip.

Keep in mind that $5.7 trillion is barely half of the $11.9 trillion outstanding today. So watch it twice. Then watch the others for more great explanations.

Later that week, I found this Argentine banknote at the San Telmo market. I recognized it immediately--I knew what one million looked like. But not so fast. You see, It was issued between 1981-1983 during Argentina’s hyperinflation days. it’s out of circulation now, and has nothing to do with the 20 pesos (roughly $5) I paid for it. In fact, it didn’t even have much to do with itself over the 13-year period that particular peso-unit was in use. When Argentina introduced a new monetary unit in 1983, The New York Times put it this way: “In 1970 a new, four-door automobile cost 20,000 pesos. Today, 20,000 old pesos would purchase two sticks of chewing gum; the new car costs 993 million.” Yikes, now that’s inflation.

So, I might know what one million looks like, but what it means? Well let's just say that it all depends.

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