Monday, July 9, 2012

For infographics and visualization designers, life outside the news industry

A photograph taken during a workshop I ran two weeks ago. None of the participants worked for a news organization. See more images at the end of this post.

1. The end of an era

Between 2011 and 2012, many Spanish news infographics designers I know have voluntarily left the industry or have been laid off. Considering how
bad the job market is in my country of origin, their situation doesn't seem to be promising. Spanish journalism is in deep crisis in a country that is unable to find its way out of the worst depression in decades. It's a perfect storm.

Obviously, journalism is not the only area that is in trouble around the world. Read University of Washington's Professor 
Julianne Dalcanton in article about the prospects of science PhD students. Does this paragraph ring any bells? It did for me:

A typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy.  Jobs that use these skills do not require large infrastructure overheads, and thus can be found in start-ups, and in almost any region of the country. Moreover, the typical astronomy or physics postdoc has had much more autonomy and freedom to lead projects, whereas lab-based biology appears to be far more pyramidal, giving postdocs far fewer venues in which to demonstrate their initiative and leadership.

I've been thinking a lot lately about
what my colleagues and I will do when most newspapers cease to exist. According to some recent grim —but well informed— stories (here's another one) this may well happen soon. I belong to a generation that grew up with ink-stained fingers, although we were able to educate ourselves in the manners of the digital age. Besides nurturing traditional visual storytelling skills (reporting, analyzing, summarizing, synthesizing), many colleagues delved into Flash, JavaScript, 3D, After Effects, HTML. The bravest among us developed amazing programming skills or became CGI artists. We love newspapers and print journalism in general but, as the astronomy postdocs Dalcanton mentions, what we've learned should transfer well to other industries.

2. Infographics outside the newsroom

This is where the good news may start. 
I hope that I am not a victim of wishful thinking or of confounding anecdotes and significant trends, but it seems that graphics skills are in demand in many areas. Gabriel Gianordoli, a talented Brazilian infographics designer, has recently been hired by Itaú, the biggest bank in Brazil, to produce visualizations and interactive presentations. The infographics explosion in online marketing and advertising, which I've criticized in the past (1, 2, 3), and the increasing interest in visual business intelligence, may be positive phenomena for those that were trained in newsrooms. Here's an excerpt of an e-mail Gabriel has just sent me:

I work in the Innovation and User Experience area, but my job is still related to information graphics and visualization. Banks in Brazil still speak a language (verbal and visual) that is too distant to users. So we try to translate our clients' financial information into visual displays that improve understanding. Up until now, most of our quantitative displays were mere numerical tables, which are not really helpful if a client wants to analyze his or her data.

I realized that there's a whole new world out there for information graphics designers and journalists back in 2008, when I was doing a media consulting gig in São Paulo, Brazil. I was contacted by a big cosmetics manufacturer, Natura, to design an application to keep track of the activities of its top management. When I interviewed Jan Willem Tulp and Gregor Aisch for The Functional Art (more about that soon), they mentioned similar projects for companies in their countries. Jan Willem, for instance, did a visualization about tax-free stores for the Amsterdam Airport; it is the first one in his portfolio.

(Two weeks ago, by the way, I organized a visualization workshop for Natura. The company sent twenty staffers, mostly designers, marketing, and PR folks, to it. We worked on basic infographics concepts and practices. See some pictures at the bottom of this post.)

3. Infographics designers and academic research

Another path worth exploring is academia. Plenty of well-known graphics professionals have become full-time instructors. The list is quite long, but I'd mention Karl Gude, now in Michigan, because he is experiencing the same trends I'm seeing at the University of Miami's School of Communication. Years ago, when I was at UNC-Chapel Hill, most of the undergrads that took my infographics and visualization classes were Journalism majors. Today, I have an interesting mix of journalism, marketing, advertising, business, art, and even medical and nursing students.

Moving to academia doesn't necessarily mean being a lecturer or a professor. You can also help researchers make sense of their stuff. One of the interviewees in the Profiles section of The Functional Art is Geoff McGhee, of Journalism in the Age of Data fame. Geoff used to be a multimedia editor at The New York Times and Le Monde. Then, he got a Knight fellowship at Stanford University and a job at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Here you have some relevant paragraphs from the interview:

Universities and educational and research institutions in general seem to be a good option for designers and journalists who have grown tired of the instability of media organizations.

Absolutely. Academics are increasingly interested in not only using the Web to transmit the description of their research but as a publication platform for their research and to open it up to make the research more of a collaborative exploration mission.

I think that is something that journalists can really help out with because academic communication has a certain protocol to it that is not necessarily open to a wider audience. Now that’s not to say that Stanford engineering is going to be publishing its own Popular Mechanics magazine. But I think more and more scholars are going to go more and more public with their work. And interactive data visualizations are powerful tool for reaching people more profoundly.


This interest that certain researchers have in journalism is starting to bear fruit in a few different ways. One is that there are more people crossing over from computer science, from stats, and from more research-oriented fields, into media. There are also educational institutions that have started interdisciplinary programs, partnering programmers with journalists, like Medill at Northwestern University and also at Columbia.
The reason those academics keep an eye on graphics in journalism is that they are used to the core idea of data viz, which is to preserve the source data as opposed to being some one-off snapshot of a particular point. But they also understand the need to make cogent points and to transmit meaning. That is the journalistic side. So I guess that my moving to academia was a result of my interest in bridging the gap between those two worlds: I am a professional journalist who has an interest in computer science, data, and visualization.

More photographs of my workshop at Natura,
the Brazilian cosmetics manufacturer: