Teaching Examples

What I learned from the news designers, Part 2
September 5, 2006, 12:21 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

SND, Day 2 (Saturday): I attended three sessions, all of which were excellent. (See my earlier Day 1 post.)

I expected Javier Errea’s presentation to be an homage to the best of Malofiej (the big infographics meeting held each year in Pamplona, Spain) — but it was much, MUCH better than a mere retrospective. He used his time to critique the types of graphics that win most of the awards, and he compared those with cleaner, clearer work that he encouraged everyone to emulate and learn from.

There’s a good summary and lots of slides from Errea’s talk at the SND Orlando blog.

I agreed with many of Errea’s points, especially when he showed the typical broadsheet double-truck extravaganza with dozens of text blocks sprinkled all over it. As a reader, I usually don’t know where to begin when I see one of those. Of course, the great ones have clear starting points and pathways … but many others are quite disorganized.

National Geographic: Maps, Infographics, 3-D

Juan Velasco (graphics director, National Geographic magazine) made very similar points in his presentation later that day. He came down hard on scientific visualizations that are very hard to grasp and said that he is working to make all the graphics in the magazine clear and easy to understand.

Like others at the SND workshop, Velasco and his colleague Kim Viesselman (design director, maps, National Geographic) never mean “dumbed down” when they talk about easy to understand. A graphic is supposed to make information more clear — not give us a tough puzzle to solve. Yet some of the unnecessarily complex examples shown do, in fact, confuse more than they explain.

One cool fact coming out of the NatGeo presentation: They are building databases to simplify and coordinate the continual updating of maps. Using databases to store a lot of the textual information that overlays the cartography will enable the National Geographic Society to more efficiently generate and adapt the same map for the many platforms they publish to — TV, Web, the magazine and also posters.

This reminded me of what I learned the previous day about using 3-D graphics. By the way, Velasco said they use Maya at NatGeo, mainly because that’s what their TV graphics people use, and it’s important that they all share the same tools.

“We only use 3-D when we think we will be using the images across platforms,” Velasco said.

Alberto Cairo (see below) also uses Maya, and he gave the same reasoning.

Alberto Cairo and Multimedia Stories

Alberto had a double-length session, and thank goodness — because there was too little said about online media at this workshop, in my opinion! To begin with, three things we need so that we can produce multimedia stories:

  1. Trained specialists to produce the work — you can get training for people you already have, or hire new people who have been trained.
  2. Get the print people involved. This stuff works much LESS well when print and online are separated.
  3. Undestand the medium. That means animation, multimedia, interactivity. Yeah!

With a multimedia graphic (or package), the designer must manage both space and time. You have unlimited space for adding more context … yet recognize that most users will spend only a few minutes (at most) with the package.

It’s “a huge mistake” to translate or adapt a print graphic for online. Alberto showed a parallel, connected workflow that simultaneously serves both online and print. (He has an excellent 11 MB PDF, in English and in Spanish, about this on his Web site.) The biggest drawback in having two separated work flows: wasted time.

If you want to produce multimedia inforgraphics, you should plan on having three people contribute. This is the logical division of labor for those three:

  1. Reporting and audio (gathering audio; maybe editing too)
  2. Photos and video (the visual reporter)
  3. Design, infographics, programming (e.g., Flash and ActionScript)

Makes sense to me!

Alberto also pointed out that “knowing only 5 percent of what Flash can do,” you can produce multimedia packages as good as most of those out there. This is exactly what I tell my students too. Flash has a gazillion capabilities, but you need only a small portion of those to do good interactive work online.

Invest time and money in doing what only you can do best — I’ll leave you with that great bit of advice from Alberto. He’s referring to all the citizen journalists and user-generated content that’s growing in quantity online.

News organizations can do journalistic multimedia better than anyone else — they have the expertise, the depth, the know-how and the news judgment. If we invest time and training in multimedia production, then we’ll have content that is not on every other Web site (like headlines).

With unique, quality content, we’ll have a hope of attracting an audience.

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Alberto Cairo’s presentation was indeed very good and helpful! Many more folks need to see his flowchart for how the news art and web art staff should be working together to produce graphics.

I only wish there would have been more time to talk about incorporating XML in a content-management system! The importance of using flexible data that can be re-purposed later is often forgotten amidst the daily deadline grind.

Comment by Danny Sanchez

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