Graphics without words (but) with Juan Velasco

Juan Velasco, art director of National Geographic Magazine, stressed the importance of classic illustration and the ability to convey information without text in his SND Denver session on Saturday.

The difference between National Geographic and newspapers is the timeframe of production. “We focus on the big picture versus the day to day,” said Velasco. “I have met many people that have collected National Geographic for 30, 40 years – so with that comes a responsibility.”

They don’t take that responsibility lightly. The graphics team of 7 (plus freelance artists) works with deadlines that range from four months to one year for major stories. Minor stories and front sections generally have two to four month deadlines.

With deadlines like that, Velasco has the time and resources to research details for months. His team focuses on illustration and technique to convey the details of a story. They produce life-size models of prehistoric alligators, buy Bone Clones (no, really, click on it) and send sketches back and forth to experts to assure that every minute detail is correct – like if that half-inch bird in the background was in that region at that time of that year with that wingspan.

“A lot of information is embedded in this type of art; I call this an information graphic because it is based on extremely precise measurements,” said Velasco.

Details are never spared

Meet Wilma. Wilma is a recreation of a Neanderthal for a story about the recent discovery that Neanderthal women participated in hunting. The thickness of the skin in every part of her face is exact; the wide shape of her ribcage perfected; her hair is constructed out of cow hair that was found to be similar to what the texture of her hair would have resembled.

Velasco and his team brought Wilma to her natural environment in Spain, where this new genetic evidence was found, to photograph her. They carried Wilma across a farm, running from an aggressive bull all for the sake of the details. At the last minute they thought the greenery of the cave was not representative of the cold European climate during her era, so they moved her to a nearby national park where ice-capped mountains were visible in the background. When the issue was about to go to print, a study showed that the blue of Wilma’s eyes was not around until after her time, so they Photoshopped her eyes to an amber color.

At the level of exactness Velasco work at, art is information. “An information graphic isn’t just an illustration,” he said, “it’s an explanation.”

The pencil is mightier than the pen tool

“Every graphics department has to have a good artist. That is very important,” said Velasco.

For example, “A hand painted relief map gives you a way of discriminating that is very hard to do with software,” he explained.

Even the first issue of National Geographic in 1888 had maps, charts and infographics. National Geographic was founded in Washington D.C. by scientists and explorers. In 1910 the classic yellow frame was introduced, and they have just recently produced the first typographic cover.

Tweets about the Velasco’s presentation really convey how much the appreciation of classic illustration is treasured. Look for the October issue featuring an awe-inspiring infographic on the Gulf oil spill, which Velasco’s team is completing in a record five weeks.