Shape for Content, Strive for Clarity, and Provide Context

[O]ur 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.

John Grimwade, Interview in The Functional Art, p. 213

At the recommendation of Professor Cairo, I subscribed to the print version of The New York Times and last week, the first edition arrived at my doorstep. (I can’t remember the last time this happened – remember the newspaper delivery boys?) Immediately, I started to dive into the sections with my coffee and stumbled upon this story and visualization:

The print version of “To Cut Emissions Faster, U.S. Can Apply These Policies” in The New York Times

It immediately grabbed my attention because I’ve been a bit obsessed with climate change as of late. Perhaps it is living in Miami where the weather is such a contrast to Upstate New York and I cannot help feel those contrasts when I’m here and my husband is in the bitter cold. We talk often about which condition is better — more months of extreme heat or extreme cold?

But getting back to the story and visualization, it makes me want to understand what other countries are doing and why it is so hard for the U.S. to adopt these policies? What are the pros and cons? What are the hurdles? In fact, could The New York Times please follow up? This was a great teaser, I want more.

So, I went online to see if the interactive version revealed anything different.

The interactive version of How to Cut U.S. Emissions Faster? Do What These Countries Are Doing.

No luck but I enjoyed the difference in experience.

My preference? The print version. Why? I could get a better sense of the story as a whole. The contrast between our possible trajectory based on current policy, how it relates to the Paris Treaty and how, if we implemented some of the same policies adopted by other countries would change earlier stated trend.

(Side note: This makes me wonder if anyone has done a study on the differences of how people perceive the same visualizations differently on screen or in print; like what information is process and what isn’t? And, would that depend on say, education level?)

“We are the Interface”

John Grimwade, graphics editor at Condé Nast Traveler magazine shares how working with reporters and editors taught him to “strive for clarity because we are the 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.” (The Functional Art, p. 216)

I haven’t thought about my experiences working at newspapers and magazines for a long time. I miss it in many ways and for many reasons but those days seem long gone since newspapers and magazine have changed dramatically. Still, there are some exciting things happening as companies reimagine what the future of publishing looks like. The New York Times, Vice President of Engineering, Brian Hamman, was a featured speaker at the 2019 Computation and Journalism Symposium last month and it was an exciting look at how they seem to be evaluating and re-evaluating the lifecycle of stories, the products they create and how these stories and products live in the system of the publishing cycle. It’s a fascinating undertaking.

It is fascinating to think of how a visualization or story lives within the world and the relationships it could have with future stories or past stories. This makes me think about how clarity and context are even more vital as content gets repackaged, repurposed, re-tweeted, re-, re-, re …

I haven’t done a deep dive into how much content is shared without its context but I’m sure it is scary. So, this makes me wonder. If “good design is not about mastering technology, but about facilitating clear communication and the understanding of relevant issues”, (p.213, Alberto Cairo about John Grimwade’s style and approach) then clarity and context becomes even more important today. Designers may not need to master technology but it behooves designers to understand how technology can determine how what is created lives within the world now and in the future. The annotation layer or even the metadata, it seems, becomes even more critical. I haven’t thought this through entirely and not sure I can alone but what happens when visualizations lose their context?

Content is King

Raise your hand if you have started to design straight on the computer.

I’ve heard and read this axiom many times. Whether it is King or Queen, all I know is that you can’t design without understanding the content. Without understanding the content, you can’t possibly provide clarity or context. So, in that sense, frankly, your design is destined to fail.

When I was teaching, many non-design students would get excited about an idea and start working on the computer even though I emphasized the importance of sketching. Perhaps it is the (understandable) fear of “not being able to draw” yet what they failed to comprehend is that it isn’t an efficient way to design especially when one is learning how to use the software as well.

Here’s what John Grimwade had to say about working straight on the computer:

[It’s] a very bad way to start. You make a lot of art decisions and then trap yourself into them. I constantly see graphics that have been done like that. A big image or illustration was put in the middle first then the designer tried to make all the other elements in the composition work around it, instead of coming up with a solid structure that would hep tell the story you need to tell.


Jim Grimwade, p. 218, The Functional Art

Chances are you’ve created buckets and then forcing your content into those buckets rather than structuring information and creating shapes based on the content and the priority of content. This is when I’ve seen my students commit “design crimes” of all kinds: Changing the vertical scale of type to make it fit, tracking out type to fit, distorting an image by one percent, and more …

Sketching is a great way to be non-committal. It is a way to think through work; similar to writing draft after draft of an essay. Ideally, each version sheds some light and builds to the final. What I love about sketching and mapping out relationships even with words is that it helps me identify questions and holes. What am I missing? What doesn’t makes sense? Those questions are just as important as what is present and how it looks.

Before you think about style, you must think about structure.

Alberto Cairo, p. 154, The Functional Art.

What I love about design is that it is a process, a way of thinking about the whole and the parts. I’m thrilled I didn’t give it up.

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