Sunday, December 30, 2012

Empower your infographics, visualization, and data teams

(Update Jan. 2nd: To learn more about how Snow Fall was made, read this.)

At this point of the year, you've probably seen the impressive Snow Fall feature by The New York Times and the retrospective of the best infographics and visualizations of 2012. You may have also visited Juan Velasco's National Geographic infographics blog, and the Tumblr by The Washington Post graphics team. Great stuff, no doubt.

Sometimes I'm asked by Latin American and European managing editors for advice on how to improve the quality of their graphics and mimic what NYT, NGM, and WaPo do. I guess that they expect me to answer that they need more resources and larger staffs. After all, everybody has heard that almost 30 people work for the graphics desk at NYT, or that the folks at NGM spend months on each of their infographics. But my answer is much shorter: "You can't."

They can't because staff size and time are not the only factors that make those desks so successful. The crucial element in their newsrooms is that designers and developers are high-caliber professionals and are treated accordingly. As Steve Duenes mentioned when I interviewed him for The Functional Art, they don't consider themselves a "service" desk, and his people are not called graphics "artists". They are not second-class citizens that other reporters and editors can use at will to make print pages and websites prettier.

So my complete answer is: to improve your visuals in the long term, fist put someone with strong journalistic and leadership skills in charge. Then, empower your designers and developers and let them work with minimal interference. Right after that, force them to think, to reason about the content. Infographics and visualization designers should be responsible for the content, not just for the shape that the content adopts.