[Infographic case study] The energetic visualizations from Swiss weekly NZZ am Sonntag

Plotting a course in the changing media landscape leading Swiss weekly NZZ am Sonntag made a new commitment to infographics. Infographics designer Marina Breame, took time to talk with SND and share some of their projects. Braem tells SND, “Everybody who is following the development in the newspaper business can see the trend, that daily papers become more like weeklies. So weeklies have to change too,” she said. “The NZZ am Sonntag decided to use elements of magazine design for a new appearance and also standards of magazine journalism for content. This is the point where infographics come into play.”

NZZ am Sonntag took an interesting data set about Swiss consumer spending and combined it with blurbs adding contest to create a compelling spread that told readers a bit about themselves.

NZZ took an interesting data set about Swiss consumer spending and combined it with blurbs adding contest to create a compelling spread that told readers a bit about themselves.

Tell us a little bit about NZZ am Sonntag’s effort to do more infographics? How did this effort come about and how is it going? What have you learned in the year you’ve been at it? Who does these graphics and what help comes from other members of the publication?

Everybody who is following the development in the newspaper business can see the trend, that daily papers become more like weeklies. So weeklies have to change too. The NZZ am Sonntag decided to use elements of magazine design for a new appearance and also standards of magazine journalism for content. This is the point where infographics come into play. Infographics originated in magazine journalism. Today they bring a new graphic quality into traditional newspapers. And they offer the possibility to convey content to the reader in another form than just by language. For all these reasons we decided to put more emphasis on infographics. Our experience is that infographics are very attractive for readers. But they are expensive to produce. And by far not all topics are suited for infographics. Ideally they tell a story, just not with words. They should not be an mere illustration of a topic.

Working at the NZZ am Sonntag has been a very exciting journey for me. At the beginning, the main challenge was in dealing with the larger format of the newspaper, since I’d been working for a magazine, in which the format was considerably smaller. Issues relating to composition and managing the time required for creating a much larger infographic, as well as technical aspects such as paper and colours were also new elements that I’ve had to learn to deal with.

Learning to deliver the best results in a shorter time period is another thing that has challenged me and kept me highly motivated. I strongly focus on reducing the statement down to the essentials, which has also positively influenced the visual language of my work, and this is an aspect I find fascinating. In order to be able to communicate a clearer message, I put a lot of effort into working actively with the editors, producing quick visualizations to check if there’s enough content for an infographic, even before the final design is defined. Once we’ve reached this stage of the process I can start working on a final idea. This approach allows me to work on multiple graphics simultaneously and to better estimate the amount of time required. However, one must be aware of their limitations and this is certainly the most important thing I’ve learnt this year.

Nowadays, I’m in charge of the conception and design of the largest infographics, but I also contribute to the definition of a consistent visual language for the small ones. Over the last year we had the opportunity to work with Michael Robinson, who is advising us, both the editors and myself, mostly on conception. Thanks to his years of experience working as the head of infographics at The Guardian, this exchange is really valuable and a great source of inspiration for my work. We’ve also discussed the idea that, in 2014, he occasionally participates, not only in the conception, but also in the implementation of some graphics, which is a great opportunity for the further development of the newspaper in this area.

The editors also play a vital role in the process, since they carry out the research and come up with ideas at the regular infographic meetings, where the upcoming themes are defined. To date, the departments of “Hintergrund” (Background), Wissen (Knowledge) and Sport are the ones that have most frequently contributed with ideas for the largest infographics.

Now about specific graphics. The wonderful chart that shows what a Swiss consumer spends in a year has a number of great layers of data — how did you come across the idea and the source information? One part of the graphic that adds a lot of value are the short sentences that explain some of the trends in each area. Adding anecdotal reporting to this kind of data really works. How did that come about?

The creation of that infographic was a very intense and exciting process, which took place during the final days of August and the beginning of September. It also coincided with the redesign of the entire newspaper by Simon Esterson and Michael Robinson.

The idea of consumption figures came from the “Wissen” department, specifically from the editor, Andreas Hirstein, who got the numbers from the Federal Office of Statistics. At first, we experimented with several concepts to find the best way of presenting the topic. The editor and I also went through the entire list of figures, looking at ways to present them so that they were suitable for visualization, and that each element functioned in relation to the others.

The idea for the anecdotes also came from the editor, Hirstein, since he knew the details and stories behind the numbers. That was inspiring to all of us and supported the narrative level making this double-page spread so consistent throughout.

Visually, what was your thinking with using scaled circles to display the data? Also the colors and radiating layout really makes this a fun graphic to explore — how did you come up with the layout concept? And how did you go about making the colors work?

The idea for the scaled circles was one of the different concepts I created when exploring the different ways in which diverse consumer data could be displayed in its entirety within a single graphic. When I talked to Michael Robinson about it, he suggested that it would be a great idea to use this concept to explain consumption patterns, since the use of larger circles that become smaller and smaller would bring a kind of dynamic and movement into the graphic. The finishing touches to the layout and the choice of colours were also the result of working alongside Esterson and Robinson during the redesign of the newspaper.

I’ve never before received so many inputs into one of my graphics, and because of all of these valuable contributions and such high-caliber influences, I would say that this graphic was really the highlight of the last year for me.

NZZ am Sonntag uses a variety of visual approaches to show readers where their breakfast comes from.

NZZ am Sonntag uses a variety of visual approaches to show readers where their breakfast comes from.

For the breakfast graphic, what a fun idea, how did it come up?

It was great fun! One day the editor, Michael Furger, from the “Hintergrund” department told me over a cup of coffee that he would like to show the origin of food through an infographic and asked me how we could visualize it. He came up with the idea of visualising this process using the food on a breakfast table, since our readers always get the newspaper on Sunday morning.

I looked at my cup of coffee and my immediate reaction was, of course, let’s do it! But rather than using illustrations or graphics, why not use photos of the real objects? So the readers could be sitting in front of this breakfast and visually “eating it up.” At our next meeting, we told Michael Robinson about this idea and he was very enthusiastic. And thus began the creative process.

The map, distance bar chart and Earth circumference all give a different and visual way of understanding where these products come from. Take us through your thinking in showing the information this way?

It was very important to me that, despite the critical message, it was still amusing and entertaining for the reader. I wanted to give the readers the imagine the experience of eating the breakfast, while at the same time, taking in the critical message about where these wonderful products come from, and to understand the global interconnectivity involved in creating such a breakfast. Then an oversight was given using a bar chart which enabled easy comparisons.
In short, each different approach has its own advantages, and carries the information in different ways. This space allows plenty of room to experiment with different visualization methods.

The images are very well integrated and carefully photographed, what was the process there? Did you ever consider other approaches, illustration or diagram?

Once the idea of using photographs as the main visual elements for the infographic was defined, I discussed details with the chief picture editor. For him it was very important that I precisely defined everything so he could brief the food photographer according to my initial concept.

With that in mind, I carefully went through the whole structure of the double-page spread, positioning each individual product as well as any place-holders for the text. This allowed me to draw out a detailed sketch for the photographer, which I handed over to the picture editor.

When I first got my hands on the result, I was very excited by the quality of the pictures, and set about putting the elements together with the final text and defining the final layout.

In the future, I would definitely like to incorporate the use of photographs more, or work alongside professional illustrators on infographics, experimenting with innovative ways of visually communicating and elaborating messages. However, working with outside contributors depends very much on the subject matter at hand or the time available.

Were you treated to a free breakfast after doing this graphic?

Unfortunately, after finishing the about breakfast graphic I didn’t have much time left to consider it, since the next project was already in the pipeline. Admittedly, I do get a healthy appetite every time I look at the graphic, either for a nice breakfast, or to pass on some of the charming little stories from the graphic.

Here are a few other examples of NZZ am Sonntag’s work

NZZ am Sonntag's timeline of cell phone technology.

NZZ am Sonntag’s timeline of cell phone technology.

NZZ am Sonntag's chart of Swiss mountains.

NZZ am Sonntag’s chart of Swiss mountains.

(Have an infographic you’d like to share? Send it my way for a future case study.)


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