Visualize the Games Vol. 2: Information and graphics

Olympic coverage can overwhelm even very large departments more than just about any other regularly occurring sporting event because of the volume of information available. You want to argue that the Super Bowl is annually more important to your audience, or the World Cup? That’s valid, but even global-scale events such as those have parameters. You can see the edge of the sandbox when you’re in the middle of it. You never have to worry about readers wanting to know about a local table tennis sensation when you’re planning your daily World Cup graphics. You don’t have to balance swimming and gymnastics with your runup to the Super Bowl.

The most crucial piece of Olympics advice for information designers is, get ahead of the Games. If you haven’t begun graphics planning and at least sketching your big-picture pieces of information, you need to catch up quickly. Separate your planning into two categories:

1. The known commodities. These are the graphics you want to run every time the Olympics happen. TV schedules and medal tables, to name a few. These kinds of things can be built months ahead of time, or better yet, picked up and tweaked every two years. There’s nothing the New York Times did in this Vancouver tracker that cannot be modified to work for London 2012. Identify these information opportunities and begin working on them now.

2. The variables. These are the stories you treat like any other sports graphic opportunity. The swimmer from your city who unexpectedly medals. The records that fall. Your national team pulling an upset or BEING upset and you needing to break it down. You can’t plan the information for these graphics, but you CAN prepare yourself. Do background graphics reporting. Who’s a threat to world records? In what sports are your national teams expected to do well? The more you know ahead of time, the faster you can react to information as the Games progress.

The other part of that is, get your styles set NOW. Are you incorporating logos? Get them ready to go. Are you using a specific color in your Olympics graphics? Make that palette today. Make libraries. It’s better to have a diagram of the Olympic pool on hand if Michael Phelps loses the freestyle gold due to a controversy over the width of the lanes than it is to spend 3-4 hours creating one on deadline if such a turn of events breaks.

Point is, the more you prepare yourself for the information deluge in London, the more you can control those floodgates.

Some additional suggestions from a couple of veteran sports designers:

  • A planning tip: Try and identify one or two visual things you can explain before the Olympics (as part of the preview) that may be able to yield you live daily graphics when the events happen. For example, we’ve had a lot of great gymnasts so we spend time with the reporter graphically showing the most important “move” that gymnast does. Rob Schneider, Dallas Morning News
  • The Olympic schedule: Take time and care with the Olympic schedule. Try and give people a global sense of the most important events on prime time that day as well as the more granular events on the other channels that day. Streaming of everything has made the schedule that much more important now as well. Rob Schneider, Dallas Morning News
  • Information in preview sections: Our preview section will be heavy on quick-hit stuff, from New England athlete capsules to four full pages of “Guide to the Games” stuff, in which we do a quick synopsis of every event and U.S. athletes to watch. Another crucial item that gets overlooked: day-to-day TV listings. For those that save these sections, that information should be clean, readable and useful. It’s the first thing I started working on here (before the cover, even), and it’s deserving of plenty of real estate as well as a sensible design. Luke Knox, Boston Globe

Written and compiled by Josh Crutchmer, Deputy Design Director for News and Sports, Minneapolis Star Tribune.