Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A conversation with John Grimwade

The first interviewee in the Profiles section of The Functional Art is John Grimwade, director of infographics at Condé Nast Traveler magazine. I decided to open that part of the book with him because —besides being one of the professionals I admire the most, and a cherished friend— he talked not only about traditional news infographics, but also about the rise of data visualization and about how it can be integrated with what newspapers and magazines have been doing for years.
Here you have a few excerpts:

Is it true that the way you produce graphics has not changed much in the 40 years that you have worked as a designer?
It is. I started doing information graphics many years before computers entered newsrooms. When they did, many colleagues said it was a huge change, but not for me. Maybe our methods of work have shifted a bit but the core principles are exactly the same.

What are those core principles?
Our main goal should be to tell a story clearly by achieving order and having some sort of narrative through each graphic. Any project should start by analyzing what your story is about and then finding the best way to tell it by splitting it up into easily digestible chunks, without losing depth.
When I design a graphic, I try to establish a hierarchy, too. In the planning stage, one of the first things I do is to identify the main components of the story and define how they are going to be sequenced on the page or on screen.

That sounds like Journalism 101 to me. When you write a story, the best thing to start with is a structure for your writing.
The only difference between a traditional journalist and us is the language. Journalists use words; we use pictures, charts, graphs, maps, diagrams, and illustrations. I think one of the reasons why some people of my generation were very successful is because we were designers, but we got embedded in journalistic environments. We worked with reporters and editors. That taught us that we should strive for clarity because we are an interface between a chaotic world of information and the user who wants to understand something. If we can’t bring users clarity, I think we have kind of failed, actually. When I see a graphic I am interested in, I try to read it critically, and one question I ask over and over again is “What’s the point? what’s the story?” That’s what you have to do when you work on a project. It’s not enough to do good research and then present your information to your readers. You have to edit that information. We, infographics designers, must work as reporters but, above all, as editors.

See one the five projects by John Grimwade showcased in the book, along with one of his amazingly detailed sketches: