Infographics at War: The OSS Presentation Branch, Part Two

Marketing the Presentation Branch
Left without a raison d’être, the Presentation Branch had to find a new reason for existing. A classified OSS pamphlet from 1943 (now readable through HathiTrust) describing the Presentation Room built for the Chiefs of Staff captures what might have been the air of desperation of the time, as it sounds an awful lot like the brochure for an upscale-but-underutilized conference facility.

The booklet describes the war room’s many features, including both a Conference Room with a full-wall world map with spotlights, projectors, and magnetic symbols, and a Presentation Room with a proscenium arch and film, slide, and reflecting projectors (this last one being the famed epidiascope). It covers the flexibility of seating arrangements, explaining how chairs for forty in the Presentation Room could be replaced by a conference table seating 12 for more formal meetings. There’s even a toll-free booking line for properly authorized War and Navy Department personnel: “Application should be made through the Officer in Charge, Room 100a, Telephone Republic 6700, ext. 77794.” The only topic not covered is the catering.

Katz argues that the new justification the Presentation Branch found for its continued existence was the creation of good-looking, sophisticated visualizations of the reams of data being created by OSS’s Research & Analysis Branch and other government agencies. He quotes from a late 1945 description of the concept: “Presentation is the selection, production and use of whatever medium or combination of media will transmit most effectively a particular body of facts to a particular audience.” Or, as the Presentation Room pamphlet had put it, “modern techniques of visual and graphic presentation provide an effective and time-saving method for the communication of vital information.”

Re-titled the Presentation Division (a step down in hierarchy from a branch) and subordinated to Research & Analysis, the designers created films, charts, exhibits, and three-dimensional displays for R&S. Two successful films and a major conference later, they became in constant demand to provide clear, captivating, imagery that would also convey valuable information. After a second stint in harness with Ford’s Field Photo, this time subordinated to it as the Presentation Division, Field Photographic Branch, in May 1944 the designers became a full-fledged Branch again – co-equal with R&A and branches like Secret Intelligence, and Special Operations.

What the Presentation Branch was developing could be described in modern terms as infographics or data visualization tools, perhaps. But, as it happens, they probably weren’t the branch’s most visible contribution to the war effort. That came in the war’s last months and after its end, in San Francisco and Nuremberg.

Back to Part One

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