Infographic case study: Orange County Register’s stunning series on California Native Americans

A series of sketches in the Orange County Register's series on California Native Americans.
A series of sketches in the Orange County Register’s series on California Native Americans.

As part of SND’s effort to share more of work from members and the visual journalism community, we will dig in to some great infographics every week or so. In our world of jelly fish-looking dataviz or colored big numbers and smiley faced pie charts that call themselves dataviz we wanted to offer a platform for real live news graphics, the kind of crisp reporting and visual explanation that truly makes data come alive.

The first installment comes from Jeff Goertzen and the team at the Orange County Register. Full disclosure: Jeff is SND’s education ad training director and is heading up the Society’s Graphics Garage sessions this year. Jeff and the folks he works with in Southern California have unleashed a torrent of elegant and bold infographics on just about everything.

Tell us about the series, how did it come about?
The idea for this project first came to me some years back when I was at JFK airport making a connection. I passed by this gift shop and saw this awesome map of the Native American Indians of the U.S. I thought to myself, how cool it would be to do that map and a series of graphics that would take a look at the different tribes. But, with all the budget cuts and layoffs the industry has been experiencing, it was difficult to pitch such a project, given how tight real estate is in our papers.

After coming to The Register, the idea resurfaced and I discussed it with the staff and we decided to run with it. And space was no object. We just had to find a news angle.

How did you decide which graphics to do? What was the process for getting these done and who was involved?
When we first discussed the concept, our idea was to do a series of graphics based on different tribes of California. But there were too many. So, we considered doing a graphic for each region, and there were seven, but clustering several tribes in one region made as much sense as clustering the U.S. with Mexico and Canada because they share the same borders. The cultural diversity was too broad. So, at the suggestion of our native American sources, we selected six common categories that defined the native American culture. These six topics would define our series.

The process of completing this project started with building a team. We originally started out with five artists in the department, but after we saw how complicated this topic was, I narrowed our team to just three of us. Fred Matamoros and I would be the illustrators, and Sandy Coronilla was the researcher.

Reporting these graphics must have been a challenge, how did your team go about it? Any good sources or tips you could share with others looking to try similar infographics?
To say that the topic of native Indians is a delicate issue is an understatement. There is so much controversy on so many levels. While some Indians prefer native American, others prefer native Indian. Some say “tribelet” while others prefer “nation.” Nothing is 100 percent correct.

That said, our researcher, Sandy was our most important investment in the project. We hired her a few months back as our researcher, a fresh college grad from San Diego State with a degree in journalism news reporting. She did a phenomenal job at researching and writing, pouring through hundreds of pages in literature and collaborating with several native Indian sources. Hundreds of hours of research went into this project.

The Orange County Register's Jeff Geortzen, and Fred Matamoros were the illustrators, and Sandy Coronilla was the researcher.
The Orange County Register’s Jeff Geortzen, and Fred Matamoros were the illustrators, and Sandy Coronilla was the researcher.

This was the first time that the quality of writing in the graphics was as captivating and emotional as the graphic imagery. In some instances, the text was better! The important thing is that both text and imagery was dead-on accurate.

There is the likelihood that other graphics departments may try to do similar projects. My word of advice is to invest in a on a top-notch researcher for a project such as this. Not many graphics artists that I know of could do the level of research and writing that was involved in this project.

Each piece covers different ground but you held them together with a consistent look and feel. How did you develop it? What was your thinking? How were the illustrations done?
Keeping the look and feel consistent in throughout this project was key. Fred and I worked very closely together on the layout, design and execution of each page. We often worked on each others’ illustrations. Something neither of us have every done. But Fred is a fantastic artists. What’s more, we have a tremendous amount of respect for each others’ talent.

The main illustrations were done first with pencil sketches, then we painted over them in Photoshop using various brush textures to give them a painterly look. The smaller drawings used very little color to show off the pencil work.

For the portraits, I looked at other artists for reference, but used a style of dynamic shadowing for the faces. You’ll notice that each face uses a lot of shadows and reflective light to add realism and impact.

How has the community reacted?
It was interesting to see the flow of emails we received. The first couple of days, most of our readers appreciated the effort, but some questioned our objectivity because we didn’t mention tribes outside of California, or that our reference to them as “Indians” was not progressive. But they obviously didn’t read the article we published the first day, which explained all that.

But throughout the week, we received dozens of positive emails. What took us by surprise was that our most controversial page on Mission life, which was our final edition, didn’t receive a single email. I guess our readers were in shock.

From the researcher

The six-part series on California Native Americans
The six-part series on California Native Americans

Sandy Coronilla, graphics reporter

Our project was pretty specific. We had two precise factors: native tribes and California. Hence my contacts were also pretty specific and may not be helpful if said future project extends beyond those two factors. However, the most helpful resource was the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa, Calif. The executive director Nicole Myers-Lim is Pomo and therefore had unique personal experiences of living as a California Indian while simultaneously devoting her professional career to the academic and legal study of California Indians.

Five lessons from the project

1. Embrace your inner reporter. Don’t just sit at your desk and expect to get exceptional results. You need to go out and talk to people, and when you’re trying to depict a culture, you’d better go talk to the people you’re trying to depict. They will be a wealth of knowledge and they’ll likely make this feel real to you. Trust me, you will not regret it. They saved me during this project.

2. Seek out  balance in your research. The people you need to talk to will be found in a variety of places: Your local university, museum, basketry association, conferences and most important in the communities. Only so much can be learned from academic papers and anthropologists. It seems unreasonable but it’s totally possible for the foremost expert on a topic to also be wrong about some things … some very important things and you don’t want that.

3. But at the same time, sit down and stretch your brain. I’m not an ethnobotanist but I can sure sift though the ethnobotony of the Cahuilla Indians. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. but you do need to be able to decipher academic papers and conduct exhaustive research using these reports. If you can’t do this, find someone who can. Look for ethnographies and ethnobotany reports. Become familiar with Jstor.  Spend some time at public and university libraries. Note: You won’t be able to check out reference material so bring change or bring your iPhone because you’re going to need to make copies and/or take photos of the pages.

4. Look for great visual references. Peruse online image archives like the USC Digital Library and University of California Calisphere. Also look for online museum collections like the Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection, the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

5. Don’t be a fool: Use a website bookmarking service. You need a place to save all the links you’re about to amass or you will not survive this project. I used Delicious but there are others. Nice part about this is that while you continue to collect links, your colleagues are able to access these links, too. Everyone can access them from outside the office. (Work outside the office?! What?) Delicious even has an app. Use technology to its fullest to help you stay organized because with a project of this scale you’re going to need all the help you can get.

Do you have an idea for an infographic case study? E-mail Jonathon Berlin.

About Jonathon Berlin

is graphics editor of the Chicago Tribune and a past president of the Society For News Design.

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