Q&A with Joe Ward: Behind the scenes at The New York Times, as they plan Olympic graphics

The Olympics are a bit like Christmas for a graphics department: strong visuals, fast data, high concepts. Plus everyone knows the Games are coming, so it’s easy to make a plan and use the opportunity to try out new ways of storytelling. In a little over a week we’ll be able to check out the storytelling from the powerhouse graphics department at The New York Times, an incredible group of journalists and artists who are on a 5-year streak of wowing the web and visual journalism world. Sports Graphics Editor Joe Ward, who will be London for the Games, took a few moments to talk with us about the Times’ plans.

How far out did you begin planning your Olympics coverage? And what are your major goals?

Steve Duenes, the graphics director, started about a year ago having meetings to discuss ideas for Olympic preview pieces. Our goals for those graphics were to explore subjects we hadn’t tackled before and/or explore them using techniques we hadn’t used before.

Those meetings became more frequent as time went on and just after the New Year we had a list of ideas to pursue. We spent the next month or so figuring out the viability of those ideas. Could we get the access to the sport or athletes? What assets could we collect? That sort of thing.

Do you plan on doing interactive video graphics for the London Games?

We do have of plans for interactive video graphics for the Games: some are previews and some are based on timed or measured results from the actual events.

Nick McCrory, a 10-meter platform diver in motion-capture gear.

Any exciting new tricks you can let us in on? And does your team feel any added pressure to “outdo” yourselves given all the great work?

I don’t know if we try to outdo ourselves, but I think we do feel the urge to find new ways to tell our graphic stories. In situations like the Olympics where there is a fair amount of lead time, we do try to push the envelope a bit. One way we tried to do that this time was using motion-capture technology. In one case we were able to get the motion-capture data from a company working with an athlete. In a couple of others, we teamed with the motion-capture lab at NYU. We had worked with them in the past on the Mariano Rivera piece, so I approached them to see if they were game to get motion data from Olympic athletes.

Once they were on board, we had to find athletes who were both likely to make the Olympic teams and willing to put on the reflective markers. Nick McCrory, a 10-meter platform diver, Abby Johnston, a 3-meter springboard diver and their coach, Drew Johansen were some of the willing participants. So, in February, we headed down to Duke where they train and where Drew is the diving coach. After two full days of setting up computers and infrared cameras—and 30 minutes of actual diving—we had the data.

In general where do the ideas for NYT sports graphics come from?

They come from a variety of places but most often they are our own ideas, either to go with a story a reporter is working on or one that stands alone.

On average, how long does the team get to build one interactive or visualization?

The timetable is really varied, but for the Olympic graphics they usually take a fairly long time. The diving motion-capture graphic has taken months. The data has to be turned into a 3D figure and then the figure and other assets into an interactive video.

Will any graphics editors or interactive designers be on the ground in London?

We have been sending graphics editors to the Olympics since 2002, and we’ll have people in London, including me.