Nigel Holmes to deliver Buenos Aires keynote

Graphic design legend Nigel Holmes will be joining us in Buenos Aires to deliver the keynote for this year’s annual workshop, which happens Sept. 24-26 in Argentina.

“We’re thrilled to have the legendary graphic designer and theorist as the keynote speaker,” said Matt Mansfield, SND’s president. “Nigel’s work visually explaining the world has informed a generation — and as increasingly complex topics continue to dominate the news, his unique approach to making the difficult easier to understand seems more vital than ever.”


Holmes talked about the current “mess we’re in” and how remaining passionate in the face of the current crisis may be the best defense at our SNDNYC meetup this spring at The New York Times.


Condé Nast’s John Grimwade sat down for an extensive interview with Holmes in 2004. Most of the images you see below can be found in the 22-page interview that was published in the annual Malofiej Information Graphics book.


Were you interested in graphics from an early age?

Yes, like a lot of English children growing up in the forties and fifties (I was born in 1942), I waited eagerly every week for a large-format comic called the Eagle, which, along with the usual kind of comic strips (ones that told stories of adventure in space or the wild west), had great cutaway drawings of buildings, racing cars, tanks, airplanes and so on. Many of these wonderful explanations were drawn by L. Ashwell Wood, and they occupied the coveted center spread of the comic.

The only member of my family to be involved with art was my great-uncle George. He did plans and elevations of British sailing vessels, some of which I was given as reference for a feature in the Observer magazine about regional boats (pictured above). It was only later that I realized who had done the reference drawings. For as long as I can remember, there was a map of a local Yorkshire river and the bridges over it drawn by George Holmes hanging in our living room. I was fascinated by the overhead plan view of the river, with three-dimensional views of the bridges crossing it. It was both a bird’s eye view and a human’s view presented in one picture. Nowadays that is commonplace, of course, but to a 6-year-old child in 1948 it was a revelation.

Where were you educated?

When Great Uncle George died, he left money to my father to educate my brother and I at one of England’s “public” schools. I was there from 1955 to 1960. I hated it. But then I went to Hull College of Art and had a great time. In 1963, I was accepted at the Royal College of Art, in London, to study illustration.


When did you decide to work in information graphics?

In 1964. My first graphics mentor was Brian Haynes (who had been at the RCA himself). He was then the art director of the London Sunday Times Magazine, and he was busy breaking down the walls between the art department and the writers. He did great work in the field of explanations. He would combine photos, maps, diagrams, extended captions and illustrations to make news stories clear. And Brian’s output was the entire story, there was no accompanying written piece. One example I remember was a visual description of the “Great Train Robbery”, a notorious crime that fascinated Britain in 1963.

Brian hired me to work as his assistant in the summer months of 1964, and I learned more from him in the short time I was there than I did in the three years at the Royal College. Brian convinced me that I wasn’t a very good illustrator, but that there was a real need for graphics that explained things. (I don’t think anyone called them information graphics at the time.)

When I went back at college after the summer, I just wanted to do “real” work instead of the somewhat irrelevant college exercises we were set.

Much to the college authorities’ disgust, I did just that, accepting freelance commissions from Brian Haynes when he moved to other magazines. For one of these jobs, Brian teamed me up with Peter Sullivan to do a large piece about Buckingham Palace (pictured above). Peter made wooden models of the floors of the palace, and had them photographed, and I did the opening double page color diagram of the Queen’s household staff–little drawings of people arranged in the front courtyard of the Palace, 200 of them, including all the footmen, nannies, chefs, clerks and ladies of the bedchamber, and everyone else involved with running the Royal Palace. The drawings weren’t very good, but I learned a huge amount from working with Peter Sullivan.

To show its displeasure that I was doing freelance work, the College only just allowed me to graduate. They gave me a “pass”–the lowest possible grade. Unfortunately for them, before they knew about my moonlighting, they had awarded me a traveling scholarship to America. And so in 1966, I traveled all over the States for four months.

Did you dream of doing something else?

Oh yes. As a child I had wanted to be a jockey, then a show jumper. My mother ran a riding school in Yorkshire, and I grew up on horseback (when I wasn’t reading the Eagle). Much later, when I started to do freelance work for the Radio Times, I took every chance to draw horses for them. Luckily English TV viewers were crazy about show jumping and horse racing.

Starting around age 13, I wanted to be a jazz drummer, and while I was at Hull College of Art, I played for a while in a small jazz band. Today I have a drumset permanently set up in my basement, but I am no better now than I was then! I still daydream of being at a jazz club when the drummer in the Thelonius Monk group falls ill and I have to step in to take his place.

What were the major influences on you? Who in the graphics field has influenced you the most?

Three very important art directors, to whom I am eternally grateful: Brian Haynes; David Driver (at the Radio Times in London); Walter Bernard (at Time Magazine in New York.)

Graphic influences: Quentin Blake and Paul Hogarth (illustrators and teachers at the Royal College of Art); Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz; poster artists Abram Games and F.H.K. Henrion; Ronald Searle; Andre Francois; Radio Times artists from the 60s; Eric Gill (who also designed the best typeface in the world, Gill Sans); L. Ashwell Wood (those center spreads in the Eagle); Harry Beck (he created the London Underground map), Edward Muybridge (eccentric 19th century English photographer who took sequential pictures of animals and humans in motion.)

Artists: Eric Ravillious (great wood engravings and watercolors of England); Amedeo Modigliani (wow!…the sexiest nudes ever painted); Stanley Spencer (quirky English types); Kurt Schwitters (as a student, I made hundreds of scrap paper collages, copying his technique); Paolo Uccello (who, around 1450, was one of the first to grapple with perspective, mixing flat 2-D figures with perspective views in his paintings.)

Other dead people I wish I could meet: Alberto Giacometti, Thelonius Monk (I admire both for their pared-down, but odd, simplicity.) And I would like to talk to the artists who painted the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves, to find out what they were thinking.

Why did you move to the United States?

I came for an exploratory visit in 1977, mistakenly thinking that I could get freelance work that I would actually do back in England. I also wanted to earn more money than I was making in England working for myself.

I wrote a kind of fan letter to Walter Bernard whose redesigned Time Magazine had caused a minor sensation within the design community in England. Walter invited me to do some freelance work while I was in America. And when it was time for me to go home he offered me a permanent job, but I had to return to England while the necessary work visa was arranged, so I officially started at Time in March 1978. Amazingly, both the Radio Times and Time used the same typefaces: Times Roman and Franklin Gothic, and that greatly helped me to relax into the new job.


Looking back, how do feel about your years as Graphics Director of Time magazine?

It was an amazing place to be, and a great shop window for doing outside work, which was actually encouraged–the people at the top wanted us to be happy and busy, and they were proud that their writers and artists represented them in forums other than the magazine. (It was assumed that you just had to drop everything whenever it was time to work for the magazine.

So anyway, I did a great deal of freelance work, spoke at many conferences, wrote three books, and ran an information graphics workshop at the Rhode Island School of Design for 10 years, as well as working really long hours at the magazine. I loved it, and I loved being in America.

A really great thing about working at Time was that the map and chart department had its own permanent researchers, so I could concentrate on making the information understandable, knowing that the facts would always be exhaustively checked. (That’s the thing I miss most about working by myself, now.) Looking back, I can see that my best work at Time was from 1978 to 1988, before I started using a computer. Of course there are pieces from those years that I wouldn’t want anyone to see now! They were overdone, and sometimes my drawings got in the way of the information. But they were only out there for a week, and the next week I had another chance. Walter was a great mentor and still is a great friend. He helped me to bridge the gap between the art department and the editorial department, and together with the magazine’s editor Ray Cave, he urged me to improve on the sketches I showed them. Those two were invariably right in their suggestions, and they were truly an inspiration.

In my later years at Time, I was promoted and became bogged down with administration tasks, and had less time to do the actual work.

I think I should have left the magazine two or three years earlier than I did. Much of my work there after the introduction of computers was not very good. I suppose I thought having a computer would save time, saving me from laboriously drawing everything by hand, and cutting amberliths (Actually I had the best assistant anyone could have wanted, Nino Telac, and he did all the ambertlith cutting, and much more). Only when I left Time did I realize that it takes just as long—if not longer—to draw something properly on the computer as it does the old fashioned way.

Why did you leave Time?

Anyone who lasted 15 years there got a chance to take a six-month sabbatical (at half pay). I made it to 16 years but then I had to stop. Within weeks of starting this “holiday” I knew I’d never go back. They were very decent about it and allowed me to take the break (and the money) without going back to work there–although they tried very hard to get me back!

I had built up a healthy freelance business and found it quite easy to survive on my own. I did all sorts of work for many different clients (including Time). It was a wonderful release to be able to work in formats that were larger than the standard magazine page size, and with subjects that did not start with the week’s news.


Your graphics begin on paper. Can you explain how this traditional approach fits into the world of computers and illustration programs?

Everything still starts on paper, and usually in a smallish notebook/sketchbook. All my very first drawn ideas and written notes are in these books, which I have kept carefully over many years and often refer back to. There are many as yet uncompleted projects in them as well as day-to-day sketches and roughs for current jobs.

When I have a workable idea for a particular job, I’ll usually draw it out again larger; probably go through two or three more versions using tracing paper, until it’s pretty tight, and then scan it. Then I use the computer to construct the drawing in exactly the same way I used to use french curves and templates to create lines when I did not have a computer. I never use the computer’s autotracing feature.

I started using Freehand at Time and still do. I use no other computer programs (except Word, for writing), and I’m probably only using about 10% of the potential of Freehand, but that’s all I need. It keeps the finished work simple. I’m not against computers–they enabled me to leave the corporate world and work by myself–but they are dreadfully misused, to my mind, in information graphics today. I think the computer should be used to take stuff out of an information graphic, rather than loading it up with special effects.


In recent years we have seen a huge growth in the use of 3-D illustration. What place is there for a simpler, more graphic approach?

Well, 3-D and surface effects are what I was just talking about. The fact that we see it everywhere is just a result of computers making it possible–whenever a new toy comes out, people want to play with it. But 3-D illustration is just a phase. While it will remain part of an artist’s arsenal of tools, it will pass away as the prevailing trend for infographics, as all fashions do: the fashion for flat, cartoony illustrations, like some that I did at Time, passed. Actually it passed before I left Time, and my efforts to do simpler work at the magazine ran up against opposition from editors there. I think that’s why they so eagerly embraced the arrival of 3-D programs after I left; they needed the graphics to have “more to them” than the information itself. But as one who had sometimes dressed up charts fifteen years earlier, I was hardly in a position to criticize the new fashion. Many people had criticized my work as overdone.

When I first left Time, some clients asked me to dress up the work I did for them (I refused; they got another artist!), but now I’m finding a renewed acceptance for simpler work. While some magazines still overdesign their graphics, other clients are getting back to basics. That suits me (and I believe it suits the information, too). I hope we’ll see a return to what I think is the basis of good information design; that is, not treating every job as a showcase for computer effects, but instead paying attention to what information is to be passed along.

You are widely respected for your work with pictograms. How important is the pictogram in information graphics?

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece on pictograms for the Information Design Journal, and it made me think about symbols again. I had written a book (Designing Pictorial Symbols, 1985), but that was largely about icons I’d drawn for Time. Here I realized that one way we make information graphics is by using little pictograms as building blocks for entire illustrations. We each create our own personal visual language—little bits that we recycle again and again. And as long as it is our own language, it’s fine to recycle; in fact it defines our style.

I’m on the fence about everyone adopting one universal visual symbol language, because that suggests that we would all use the same icons (like an alphabet), and while I want people all over the world to understand what I have drawn, I’m not yet ready to give up personal style for a committee-accepted set of pictograms. I hope one day to do some work in the field of completely wordless diagrams, especially if it is for a cause such as helping those in third-world countries who are unable to read.


What do you think are the most important fundamental rules for our business?

I hate rules! They put straightjackets around freedom of expression. However, I guess I do have some personal rules of my own. The first is that the best way to explain things is always the simplest way.

Keeping things simple and clear does not mean dumbing down information, nor does it mean making it look boring and austere. That is why Art is important. I mean Art in the service of information, not art for art’s sake. Sometimes Art might mean just beautiful simplicity. At other times it might mean wit, or humor, or fun. My fundamental mantra is enjoyable clarity.

One thing that often seems wrong with information graphics is the use of too much color. These days, I like to start a job with very little color and only add it when the information demands it. Of course, many editors and art directors still think of information graphics as a sort of colorful decoration for their pages. While the arguments are obvious to me, nothing I say seems to convince them. The rule is: only use color when it’s needed (and get your arguments lined up!)

Over your career, which work has given you the most satisfaction?

During two periods: my freelance work at the Radio Times in the early 70s, and my first years at Time. But I am always hopeful that the best is yet to come!

In the whole wide world of graphics, who do you most admire?

Otto Neurath and his brilliant designer/artist Gerd Arntz.

What are questions every information graphics designer should ask?

What’s the point of the graphic I am doing?
What information does the reader/user need to know?

I think many graphics are too big. Perhaps we designers should ask for less space when that’s all we need. So ask this question: what is really the best size for this graphic?


Why is information graphics still a second-tier job in the area of graphic design?

Firstly, because most people can’t do information graphics and don’t understand what is involved in making them. They are therefore relegated to the bottom of the pile, and dashed off without much thought. Most art directors (at magazines and papers that do not have information graphics directors) won’t spend the time conceiving good information graphics, so they make as many excuses as possible for why information graphics should not appear in their magazines.

Secondly, there are relatively few information graphics produced that can compete at the same level of visual excitement with other forms of graphic design (illustrations, posters, book jackets, etc). So information graphics do not have the same place at design conferences, in design competitions, and within design organizations. I don’t like design competitions much, but the results of them are one indication to editors that someone is recognizing your work.

In many cases, the best information design is the workhorse of the design field—it just goes about its job without getting much recognition or thanks. It’s taken for granted. A diagram here, a map there, a chart; to many people these things are “necessary”, but don’t have to be regarded as anything special.

Until we can convince the graphic design world, (and then the rest of the world), that information graphics is an important part of the graphics community, we’ll be sidelined.


After 40 years of doing information graphics, what’s in the future for you?

I’m trying to doing more of what I want to do—writing and drawing—rather than what a magazine or some other type of client asks me to do. But I still have to earn a living, so I’ll continue with my monthly “How-it-works” drawing for Attaché, US Air’s in-flight magazine, as long as they want me. The writer Jim Collins and I have been doing it together for over 6 years. We’ve done 75 columns so far, and we’re trying to get the collection published in a book.

I like working for the New York Times, because I think it’s a great paper (with terrific information graphics), and because they generally get me to do lighter illustrations, and it’s relaxing to have that kind of brief after staring at numbers the rest of the week. But I treat these illustrations just the same way I would an information graphic, with the same routine of thinking, writing, sketching, scanning and computer output. You can see this in the Father’s Day sketches and illustration for the Times.

In the last few years I have done seven books with Richard Saul Wurman. The best was a book of medical tests for men (and another for women). Now I want to start projects myself, and I am currently in negotiation with a children’s book publisher to write and illustrate a children’s adventure story. It’s got lots of diagrams and maps in it, so it looks like I’ll never be far from information graphics. But then again, I’m a very late developer, so watch out!