Infographics report from the Jumping Jester

John Grimwade, our man on the scene at Pamplona's Jumping Jester (the back channel and night home of the Malofiej crowd)

 

Perhaps the best place to test the pulse of world infographics is in The Jumping Jester, which is the unofficial Malofiej headquarters. It’s an Irish-themed bar directly opposite the main conference hotel. And it’s name is indelibly etched in the minds of graphics aficionados from every corner of the globe. Because, for a few days every year, it becomes the center of the infographic universe.

So, in a somewhat scary atmosphere of smoke and blasts of infographic hot air, you can get a very good idea of what is happening in graphics departments around the world. Not the carefully considered comments you hear in the conference auditorium, but the full-on, uncensored, inside stuff. Of course, drink is a powerful component in this process, but it often just amplifies the underlying truth.

I’m not going to give the names of the people who confided in me. Indeed, as I was usually fueled by numerous gin and tonics, I often cannot remember exactly who the comments actually originated from. Let’s just say that they include some of the biggest names in infographics.

“Data visualization is killing infographics!”

No question. This was the hot topic. The debate about the role of big number-crunching graphics in the popular press was the biggest over-spill from the conference. At 4 A.M. on Saturday morning, a couple of people were shouting at me from about 3 inches away* for apparently having played a role in promoting data visualization at Malofiej. (OK, I did interview Ben Fry, and one of his graphics is on the cover of the latest Malofiej book.) There is a significant group of graphics people who feel that data-viz graphics do not belong in their newspaper or magazine. “Sterile.” “Impossible to understand.” “Clinical.” “Cold.” These and many more compliments were being banded about. Not opinions shared by all the attendees by any means, but by a large enough group for it to be certainly worth noting. I’ve said my piece in a recent post: I think we have to learn to live with it, and it has it’s place in the infographic toolkit.

* In England, we call this “getting the hairdryer treatment.” (Well, it was not easy to talk. “The Final Countdown” was blasting out of the bar’s speakers.)

“Is the iPad going to save us?”

These conversations sometimes had a grasping-at-straws feel. But we mostly agreed not be so desperate as we get into this area. Yes, perhaps we are desperate, but we certainly don’t want to communicate that feeling to our readers. “All our stuff will be on it, but will anyone want to pay?” was one slightly slurred comment. That’s too big an issue to get into here. It’s all questions and very few answers, at least where I work.

“Are we making graphics for other graphics directors to admire?”

Several people felt that perhaps we are. No question, there were tons of lavishly produced mega-graphics in the competition. Should we put our resources into smaller, more-focused graphics. Some of the attendees had been at the Dutch infographics conference and heard Charles Blow’s succinct argument that we need to re-evaluate the approach we are taking: Make sure that we have a strong story, worth telling, and tell it in a clear and concise way. A hard point to argue with. I like a bit of show-biz in graphics myself, so I’m still thinking about this one.

“Are small graphics overlooked?”

This follows on from the last point. Many people feel that their beautifully-conceived little gems are  pushed aside in competitions by big, splashy graphics. I don’t know if this is the case, and I hope it’s not. I wasn’t a judge so I couldn’t reassure anyone. But, you trying reassuring someone who has had ten glasses of wine.

“Does anyone read our infographics?”

There was a definite consensus that we need more reader feedback. Some kind of comprehensive survey that tells us if we are getting through to our audience. Where this is actually coming from, no one seemed to have a clue. We all seem to be waiting for some imaginary university to produce a big, fat research document. And it had better say that readers are valuing our graphics, or we will have to quickly push it into the shredder.

And finally…

“Are you going to sleep at all tonight, or shall we drink our way through to breakfast?”

There were several shaky-looking individuals checking out on Saturday morning (of course, including myself). And perhaps they were temporarily not quite so keen to get into the mechanics of infographics, but watch out, they are returning to their publications and will probably bring these arguments to a bar near you!

JOHN GRIMWADE is information graphics director at Condé Nast Traveler and a long time supporter, teacher, mentor for SND infographics. Reach him at JohnGrimwade.com.

2 comments

Great post! John.
To me, if a graphic doesn’t immediately help me understand the story, I’m off to something else. So no matter how interactive, beautiful, clever it is, I judge it by — does it help me understand the issue quickly.

I have so much info coming my way all day from every corner that whatever grabs my attention needs to be a whiplasher.

Thanks for the backstories.
Donna Davdison

Thanks a lot for raising these relevant questions John, and let me try to answer, or at least respond to, some of them:

“Data visualization is killing infographics!”

Sorry but what kind of infographics does NOT involve data? Anyway, I guess I understand what you mean, more specifically, and sure, there may be some graphic artists in the younger generation who are perhaps more thrilled by the new technological possibilities to let data create mysterious shapes and patterns than by the perspectives of reaching an audience. On the other hand, we have young artists like Thomas Molén who are obviously driven by a desire to communicate, and who use data visualizations for exactly that purpose, in a very convincing way.

“Is the iPad going to save us?”

Stupid question, but I guess that’s what could be expected after long days and several pints …

“Are we making graphics for other graphics directors to admire?”

Much too often, I am afraid. This disease is not unique to infographics however, it is something that haunts the entire media business. For instance, winners of press photography contests frequently appear to be entries which only the avant-garde will appreciate, not the average reader.

“Are small graphics overlooked?”

Always has been, and probably will continue to be until competition committees and jurys find new ways to evaluate them (I mean physically). Having been a judge several times myself, I know how easily these events can turn into poster contests. Same problem with page design competitions, by the way.

“Does anyone read our infographics?”

Yes, isn’t it amazing that we have been doing all this work for all these years without really knowing – without really caring, some would say – whether it is any use to anyone? But actually, some research has been done on the topic. I recall a Swedish study, from some Stockholm university in the mid-nineties, suggesting that male readers were appreciating infographics – the typical, slightly engineery, kind – more than female readers who would often prefer a verbal explanation. And about ten years later, another Swedish study – this time done by the University of Lund (read an abstract on http://www.lucs.lu.se/LUCS/125/LUCS125.pdf) – gave a clear indication that tiny infographics closely related to the story (both content-wise and regarding their placement) were of much greater value to the reader than the big things with which we usually garnish our articles. The same survey concluded that sequential graphics, composed like comic strips, were conveying information much more effectively than what the researchers named ”radial” graphics, with a visually strong starting point and chunks of information scattered around it.
However, without any doubt these questions deserve much more attention, and one could hope that the fact that infographics are becoming en vogue will lead to students all over the world beginning to research the actual impact and value of different kinds and executions of infographics.

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