Juan Velasco Talks Infographics

"There is no room for fiction in information graphics." An interview about why we need data vizualisation, what it takes to create great infographics, and what it's like to work at National Geographic.
Posted by Gestalten—07/2014

Data journalism and data visualisation have become all the rage lately, but, to borrow a phrase from a different scene, Juan Velasco liked it before it was cool. Now 20 years into his career, the senior editor for art and graphics at National Geographic magazine is one of the biggest names in infographics today. To announce his Gestalten workshop The Power of Infographics on September 29-30, we're presenting a yet unpublished interview from our book A Life in Illustration

As someone working at the crossroads of graphic design, illustration and journalism, what job description do you feel most comfortable with?

I’m a journalist, a visual journalist. My job is to tell and explain relevant stories, to turn on the light for readers and help them understand complex information in a visual way. Graphic design and illustration are a big part of it, but always within the constraints of being completely accurate. For that reason, research is an essential part of my job.

What drew you to visual communications in the first place?

My father was a writer, journalist and illustrator. Art and writing were always present in my life when I grew up. I always wanted to be a journalist, and when I discovered I could mix both journalism and art in the new field of infographics, I had no doubt that this is what I wanted to do. I studied Journalism in Madrid and started working for daily newspaper El Mundo, which was one of pioneers in modern infographics during the early 90s. After that, I received an offer to work in the graphics department of The New York Times. I worked there for five years, first as a graphics editor and later graphics art director. In 2002 I started my own company, 5W Infographics. We did a lot a freelance work for National Geographic, and eventually they offered me a job as graphics director. I became the art director of the magazine in 2008.

Why do we need infographics?  

Good information graphics can get where text and photographs cannot. They can reveal patterns hidden in data sets or in geography. They can see the very small (atoms) and the very large (space), the very abstract (visualizing processes), what is inside (cutaway and cross sections), and what is no longer alive (a reconstruction of a dinosaur or an extinct hominid). Graphics synthesize and help understanding complex information by making it visual, linear and simplified.

What does it take to be a good infographer? 

Infographics need to be visually engaging and beautiful but you also need multiple other skills: doing research, synthesizing complex information, visual and narrative clarity, focus, hierarchy and balance of elements, visual flow, using color as information… Depending on the kind of infographics you do, you may need additional skills related to cartography and the analysis and display of statistics. You also need a good deal of intellectual curiosity and interest about the world and current events, and a consequence of that, a commitment to accuracy and truthfulness.

So what do you consider the biggest challenges and pitfalls? 

Avoiding unnecessary complexity and the misrepresentation or distortion data are the biggest challenges. Infographics transfer complex data into accessible chunks of visual information. That implies graphic simplification, unequivocal commitment and clear decisions. How do you find the balance between fact—the brief and the subject matter— and fiction—creative imagination and abstraction? There is no room for fiction in information graphics. Only facts. Creativity is good as long as it’s at the service of information. Abstraction and simplification are almost always necessary to make stories approachable, but that’s a journalistic editing role even if it’s done with images rather than words. Having said that, there is no reason an infographic can’t be beautiful and truly creative in explaining information. It must be to be a good one.

How important is style in the world of infographics, and how would you describe yours? 

Many people are technically excellent, but it’s much harder to have a unique voice in a field where artistic expression is necessarily limited by the need for accuracy and simplicity. Those who can do both, and those who can display complex data and complex cartography with style, elegance, simplicity, and clarity are rare. My style, and the style I look for in people working with me, has very rich and sophisticated visuals that engage readers while keeping the storytelling very simple, clean and explanatory. I like short but very well-edited text that allows you to learn, and text for infographics is an art by itself. I like a clear reading flow, a well-thought hierarchy, and using color as an added layer of information, not decoration. No visual element in a graphic should be decorative; they all need to contribute to tell a story.

Who do you consider the pioneers of contemporary infographics?

I have to mention the work of Nigel Holmes and John Grimwade, Jaime Serra, Fernando Baptista and Charles Blow as the people that have influenced my work the most. 

What do you consider the most important developments in infographics over the last decade or so? 

We live in the age of big data. Everything is being measured and quantified and more raw information is available and accessible to more people. It's only natural that we try to make sense of it by organizing it, editing it, and presenting it visually for better understanding. Readers are coming to expect that. 

There is an avalanche of data visualization. Outside of journalism, much of this new data visualization seems to be more about art, design and “cool” visuals than about helping people understand data and the stories data can tell. It looks cool but it doesn't help. We need to keep journalistic integrity, clarity, and the benefit of the reader in mind. Careful editing, simplification and the curation of information are more relevant than ever.

We have also seen amazing new software and programming enabling smart data visualization such as Processing and Tableau. We are also experiencing a rethinking of how interactive graphics serve readers on the web: there are now more linear, carefully edited narratives that require little interaction from the reader and less multiple-choice interactivity in which the reader may get lost. 

Finally, in the last decade or so we have also seen amazing progress in mapping software and techniques: dynamic mapping linked to databases, great advances in satellite imagery and processing, and crowd-sourced mapping. Unfortunately, most newspapers and magazines are not taking advantage of good GIS and advanced mapping.

What’s your team like at National Geographic? 

The core part of the team is made up of six senior graphics editors. Three of them specialize in cartography and three in information graphics, either data visualization or illustrated graphics. They are responsible for conceptualizing graphics for stories and doing the editorial and artistic development. We also have a research editor, two graphics editors, a map text editor, a text editor, two production assistants, and we always have a few interns that make great contributions, including artwork for publication. The same people are responsible to come up with plans for their stories on the iPad and iPhone, which also have their own video and layout team.

Can you give us a glimpse of your daily routine at National Geographic? 

Our deadlines are not tight; in fact, they are really long. We may work on the same graphic for six months or even a year, including research and production. We don’t depend on breaking news but we have to be relevant and cover the important topics of our day. Unlike newspapers, where you finish a project and then move on to the next one, we are working with multiple stories for multiple issues at the same time. You have to be a good project and time manager.

We are the editors and journalists responsible for our own projects. We don’t receive assignments to do graphics. When a story is approved, the photo, text and graphics editors are responsible to independently come up with a plan to cover that story. But obviously we communicate a lot with the text editor and the photo editor to make sure we are on the same wavelength, using the same reliable sources, and sharing travel and planning logistics. In most cases we need to start before the text is written and the photos finished, so we need a degree of journalistic independence from them.

In general my days are full of meetings with my team, with text and photo editors, and with experts on different topics that are providing us with information. Many of the meetings are just talking, but I also spend a good deal time doing hands-on work with my team sketching out ideas or looking at the maps, art, and graphics as they evolve.

How much time do you usually spend on research, concept, and idea development? 

More than fifty percent of the time. We need to find relevant stories, the best experts and consultants, and often we need to study topics in depth to be able to offer a solid an innovative plan or to find the best datasets. A good idea is everything, and once we have good research we spend a good amount of time sketching and refining visual ideas. 

As a graphic evolves, we stay in touch with experts, sending revisions back and forth to make sure everything is accurate. The actual execution of the drawings, charts, and maps takes a small portion of the total time.

How do maps compare to charts, in terms of the process and complexity?

Both forms depend on obtaining the right datasets, cartographic or numerical. But charts are simple to produce compared with maps. Sophisticated maps are technically difficult and they require a very special eye to combine multiple layers (relief, land cover, thematic layers, multiple levels and styles of typography), and to do it cleanly and beautifully.

What tools and computer programs do you work with? 

We use a wide range of tools: Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign, Excel, Arc GIS, Nature Scene Designer, After Effects, Edge, 3D software such as Lightwave or Cinema 4D and also pencils, brushes, clay, cardboard…

What’s your ideal work environment? 

I like being very close to my team but I also value the privacy of individual offices. People think that open space layouts foster collaboration, but that’s just a psychological trick. Our work requires intense research, interviewing people and creative focus. That’s hard to do in a room full of people. The important thing is to stay connected and talk to your colleagues often—in person. At 5W, most of my jobs are done on the go, while traveling, and I love the change of scenery, knowing new places, and meeting new peoples. But I need a good, modern hotel with impeccable internet service or I won’t be happy.

Interview by Anna Sinofzik

The Power of Infographics: Data Vizualisation and Storytelling with Juan Velasco is a two-day workshop taking place on September 29-30, 2014 at Gestalten Space in Berlin. Places are limited to 20 participants. Book your ticket now. 

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