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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2016 / Winter 2017)

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Digital Timelines for Illustration and Education

By Cindy Higgins, University of Kansas

A graphical organizer and commonplace for good reason, the ubiquitous timeline maps a topic over time as well as events-in-time. Explained Robin Kullberg (1995) about timelines in Dynamic Timelines: Visualizing Historical Information in Three Dimensions: “to locate an event in time, as we would locate a city on a geographical map; to see the time elapsed between events, as we would see the distance between two cities; to get an overview while being able to focus on detail in its correct context, as we would view a city in the larger context of its state while being able to discern information particular to the city.”  

Figure 1:  HSTRY Timeline with Instructional Design Elements

Designers use timelines to illustrate, and instructors incorporate them into lesson plans for students to determine content relevance, importance, continuity, changes, influences, and connections. Whatever the use, timeline elements remain the same with the basic one being the path or trajectory (the axis representing time passage), that is typically linear — straight, curved, branched, diagonal, meandering, crossed, or even circular such as a spiral or concentric circles similar to tree ring growth. Elements also consist of time unit markers typically including start and finish points. Other essentials include the time unit description, graphics, or other extra information, depending on the timeline’s detailing.

Controlling for Potential Distortions of History

However, the downside to the useful timeline is its potential to distort history. Sequencing, for instance, implies events relate to another and that an earlier event caused following events, even suggesting “turning points, linear trends, and progressions, whether or not these exist in fact" (Roy Rosenzweig Center, Oct. 31, 2016).  Events on timelines, too, usually appear as abrupt, discrete changes without transition or influence. The sudden switches make change appear effortlessly and in isolation when change most often is a series of events with multiple antecedents. 

The good news is digital timelines offer the potential to correct these pitfalls by offering weblinks; multiple-viewing perspectives; and in-depth layering that shows influential events in sequence and also within larger thematic frameworks (e.g., Path of Protest, Texas History Timeline).  And, besides PowerPoint templates and GoogleDraw (and similar programs), many free online choices to create timelines abound. 

:  Bullock Museum's Texas History Timeline 

[Scroll down to interact with the timeline at the bottom of the Bullock Museum's page.]  

Some Digital Timeline Tools

Besides PowerPoint templates and GoogleDraw (and similar programs), many free online choices to create timelines abound. 

Make a handmade timeline with sketchnoting applications such as FlipInk (iPad) or Paper by FiftyThree (iPad). Or take advantage of customizable templates at multipurpose design sites (e.g., Canva, Visme, Piktochart, and Lucidchart). 

There’s also free timeline-specific programs — readwritethink, Histry, TimeToast, Capzules, and TimelineJS — each easy to learn and with a distinctive look and purpose. For example, younger students can use the intuitive readwritethink with little instruction to make a simple timeline. Illustrators wanting to quickly embed a sophisticated timeline on a website can do so with TimelineJS, while instructional designers might want to incorporate the additional features of Histry such as the quiz question inclusion or “Did You Know” fact insertions. 

Figure 2:  Thumbnails Showing the Same Timeline Information Displayed by Various Programs [From left to right:  Canva, readwritethink, TimelineJS, and Lucidchart]

Want to integrate a map with time? Check out free timeline programs MyHistro and History in Motion. (On the cross-play between time and geography, see the exemplary History of Earth map timeline that packs 4.5 billion years into a couple of minutes and visually as the distance from Los Angeles to New York.)

Besides free timeline programs, subscription priced timeline makers, e.g., Timeglider, Tiki-Toki, may offer a certain number of free timelines that can be generated.  

Timeline Questions to Consider

  • What are the start and finish dates, events, and measurement units, e.g., year, decade, etc.?
  • Would another graphic organizer, e.g., diagrams or maps, be more effective? Could you depict events in time with slideshows, videos, or audio?
  • What is the underlying message or purpose, e.g., growth, collapse, celebration, frequent change, etc.?
  • How will events be selected for inclusion?
  • Will the timeline include topic events alone? Or topic events in comparison to another topic or topics in the same time period? Or topic events in comparison to local, national, or international events?
  • Will transition be noted in some way if change took place over time?
  • Will there be an indication whether one event caused another? 

 Digital Timeline Tool Feature Comparison

Figure 3:   Digital Timeline Tool Feature Comparison 

[To access a machine-readable version of the table in  Figure 3, please access the prior link.] 

See the everyday timeline in new ways when exploring digital timeline makers!


Kullberg, R.L. (1995).   Dynamic Timelines: Visualizing Historical Information in Three Dimensions, PhD diss., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 19.  

Roy Rosenzweig Center, “How to Make a Timeline,” accessed 31 October 2016, at

About the Author

Cindy Higgins works at the University of Kansas.  Cindy Higgins has an instructional design graduate degree from Emporia State University and from the University of Kansas a master's degree in journalism and design undergraduate degree.  She may be reached at  

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