Infographic case study: Times of Oman incredible Mandela visualizations (… and some others)

The Times of Oman and Al Shabiba are among the top winners in SND’s annual competition with hyper-creative art direction, super-high ambitions, a bold, newsy design that takes on big stories in big ways. The infographics for the two publications embody those values as well. The team at Times of Oman and Al Shabiba have produced stunning infographics for years on all types of topics.

Infographics director Antonio Farach was kind enough to give SND a tour of some recent projects that demonstrate his team’s incredible capabilities and creative visualizations to news events that don’t just serve up great infographics on a silver platter.

Tell us about your team?

The graphic team is integrated of six designers: Three illustrator-designers (Winie Ariany, Lucille Umali and Isidore Vic. Carloman), one graphic designer (Sreemanikandan Satheendranathan), and two graphic editors (Antonio Farach and Marcelo Duhalde).

Also Adonis Durado, the design director, supervises all of our products, contributes with illustrations for special projects like the death of Nelson Mandela.

Our team produces infographics and illustration for several publications: Two daily newspapers, English and Arabic; four weekly magazines and others.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day begins at noon, receiving the daily assignments from the editorial team: editorial cartoon, full illustrated pages, daily wire charts … In the afternoon other stories arrive which need graphics or illustrations.

Tell us a little about how you pick assignments?

At the end of each year, we plan our next year’s big projects with the design director. Usually we focus on local cultural stories and world sport events. To work for middle-eastern media is an advantage in the way we pick our big cultural projects because there are many subjects to cover, most of them suitable for graphics.

How does doing graphics in two languages affect the work you do?

Doing graphics in two different languages is a challenging and expensive task, even the small charts, because we don’t know Arabic! We work with translators.

The production of an Arabic chart starts when the editor arrives with the story or when we feel that some story really needs a graphic.

Usually before sketching we need to have an idea how the infographic will work in English and Arabic. Once a rough sketch is done, we need to negotiate about the size with the editor.

The content is written based on the editor’s raw material or based on own quick research. We give the text to the translator and the translator gives it back to us to replace of the English at a later time.

As far as design, sometimes it is simple. We design the chart in English and once finished, it is flipped for left-to-right reading, but sometimes there are maps that cannot be flipped.

We then replace the English with Arabic. Sometimes we realize that additional explanations need to be included in the graphic, and again we need the help of the translator. Also at last moment the intro or the headline need to be reworked, and again, we need translation.

Your department uses a wide variety of charting and illustration styles as well as an energetic color pallet, what’s your philosophy on these approaches?

We use a fixed color palette and fixed chart style for daily graphics but for weekly stand-alone graphics we try to explore other ways go more diverse.

The team layered on data about all of South Africa in addition to Nelson Mandela.
The team layered on data about all of South Africa in addition to Nelson Mandela.

I want to focus first on the Mandela graphics. The timeline has a number of nice overlays. The MK acts, the visualization of Mandela’s discourse and the leaders of the country. Tell us a little about how you came to including these data sets?

I think that the story of Mandela cannot be narrated alone, that’s the multi-timeline that readers can read in parallel in order to understand in a panorama. I focussed the content more on facts directly related with South Africa rather than Mandela’s suffering in jail, I tried to avoid stories that are already known by most readers (Robben Island, etc.). So Mandela’s discourse was for me the most important part to research and also was the most difficult part because we still don’t use a scraping system, so we copied every speech and calculated a word-count for each one. The MK acts are important to me because I don’t want to show Mandela as a saint, he was a revolutionary! The freedom index is very explicit: Just when Mandela assumed the presidency, the country was free.

A traditional timeline with data overlays.
A traditional timeline with data overlays.

You overcame a traditional challenge with timelines when items bunch up or distribute oddly by including the anecdotal timeline in a “U” around the graphic. Tell us a little bit about how you came to this solution?

From the beginning I wanted to focus on Mandela’s public life but at the same time I wanted to include his personal facts. I tried to put everything in a horizontal timeline but that gave me three problems: It was too wide for a spread, it had too much empty space in Mandela’s youth period; and also the most important part, the public period was to compressed. The solution, I split it into two timelines: all the main events in horizontal timelines and the personal facts in a vertical reading space with black background to separate it from the main part of the graphic. At the beginning this was in two columns on the extreme sides, but that gave us another problem because the reading was disrupted. Also on the bottom we had the wives’ timeline that I’d consider it in some way as public because Winnie Mandela was an important part of the struggle but that info also can be used on in the personal part of Mandela’s timeline, so we did move the wives data out and we did connect the two columns giving it the U-shape.

Using the shirt as the conceit came after a number of drafts.
Using the shirt as the conceit came after a number of drafts.

On the visualization of “Long Walk to Freedom” how did you come up with using the South African style shirt as a framing device for the analysis?

Marcelo Duhalde was commissioned to handle this piece, so he explained better his conceit:

“From the beginning I avoided to use a big Mandela image, so my objective was to find some recognizable symbol of the leader. I though in jail bars fist, or anything related with captivity. I also thought about visually using the actual textual content but the result seemed very dark and poor in information. Then, a second idea was to use the chapters like jail bars, but with this only links with the period of Mandela’s life when he was in prison, and the book is about his entire life.

Word count data is woven into the shirt.
Word count data is woven into the shirt.

“The next step was to find some words which represent better the stages of the leader’s life, not the most-used words from the book, this not represent the changes along Mandela’s moments. Once the words were selected I started to probe different layouts but most of them were too neutral, so I started to look at photos of Mandela and the idea to use the Madiba shirt came after that. I started to make drafts using some patterns to show numbers. After some digital tests, the final layout came.”

The piece was conceived for one full page, but later we feel the need to include some information about how the book was written, so we decided to extend it to a spread.

There are those in the infographics world that protest the word cloud as a useful visual tool. You overcame that in this graphic by structuring the data by type of word and book segment. Talk a little about how you worked with the data?

We found in the very early research stages that Mandela’s autobiography is too much as a single visualization, so we split the coverage in two spreads, his life and his life in his own words.
We had two attempts: First we made a word count of the entire book and identified the words repeated the most for all 115 chapters separately. In the second we filtered the terms in categories and we chose the 10 most relevant words from the top categories. And from that Marcelo made his matrix following the Madiba style.

The Times of Oman has special pages in one of its magazines for infographics.
The Times of Oman has special pages in one of its magazines for infographics.

There are two other graphics I’d like to ask about: Where did the notion for “The life of a wooden pencil” come from? What section did it run in? How to you pitch a graphic like that?

We are lucky to have had for most of last year an exclusive space in our magazines for our visualizations. That section was called “Miscellanea,” in which we have many of our big hopes for this new SND competition. So, one of those pieces was “The life of a wooden pencil,” created by Marcelo Duhalde and illustrated by himself and Sreemanikandan Satheendranathan.

Marcelo says: “Maybe this is not the most useful infographic, but it is interesting to visualize such everyday occurrence, that was the goal when I planned this piece. I wanted to know, based on facts and not on projections, how long is the life of a pencil drawing based on the amount of paper covered by the pencil rather than the time of existence. So I decided to make this simple experiment attempting to record not only the number of drawings that fit on a pencil but the way the tool changes and the waste that it leaves throughout its life. I used the pencil strictly for these drawings, the exact counting laps for each of the drawings and photographing the resulting shavings. The only thing that I regret was the size, (each drawing has a lot of details). The result pleased me very much, is a visual display but not as we usually see. It is not an interpretation of data, it is real and analogous information itself, a tangible visual record.”

We plot the pencil shavings using the spiral-like-technique that we previously used in 2012 London Games graphics for depict Usain Bolt’s 400m.

The Times of Oman used a sound editing program to measure length of applause.
The Times of Oman used a sound editing program to measure length of applause.

For your breakdown of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, you found some really unique and creative ways of understanding that event. Tell us a little about coming up with the applause breakdown, audience size and speech analysis?

I ordered all speech lines in the same way the were spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., separated not by sentence but by pauses, so I had more space to place the entire speech in one single column.

MLK used used repetition on his speech, so I’d connect with arcs those repeated terms. In order to give layering to the text I decided to identify Dr. King’s emotive speaking from the plain speaking using a different color.

For the bubbles representing the applause I used a sound editor in which I can identify in detail the length of each applause breakdown.

The speech analysis was based on the rhetorical analysis of Ted Wilkenfeld.

About Jonathon Berlin

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

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