#SNDDC speaker Nigel Holmes on clarity, design and influence

Nigel Holmes

Infographics legend and award-winning designer SNDDCfirstlook1_700pxNigel Holmes spoke at the second annual SND workshop, which was held in Washington in 1980 and will return as a featured presenter at SNDDC (register here). Holmes, who was graphics director at TIME magazine for many years and continues to work with freelance clients around the world, answered questions for us about what keeps him going — and what other information designers might learn from his experiences.

Tell me about your extensive background in information graphics
in your years working for TIME and since.

I went to Time in September 1977 at the start of a three-month period when I exchanged my house in London for a house in America. I’d written a kind of fan letter to Walter Bernard, the new art director of Time, after seeing his redesign of the magazine (the international edition) that had first appeared in London in July. (In London, I was freelancing for many publications, including the Times, the Observer, and the BBC magazine, Radio Times.) After three months freelancing for Walter in New York, he offered me a full-time job. Walter was a great mentor and champion; urging me to use my illustration background to create a different way to show data, and defending what I did in the face of initial push-back from skeptical editors.

Graphic for Time / Nigel Holmes
Graphic for Time / NIgel Holmes

I stayed at Time for 16 years, until 1994, producing about six graphics a week, some very large, some quite small; some over-illustrated (and much criticized in academic circles!); and quite a lot that were very straightforward. The way the charts and diagrams turned out depended on the seriousness or otherwise of the news itself…and on the deadline, of course. To begin with, from 1977 to 1984, everything was drawn by hand (to help me I had a wonderful assistant, Nino Telac); then sometime in 1984/5 I started using a Mac…the drawing program Freehand: which I still use to this day, in spite of the fact that no one else does. It’s much more intuitive than Illustrator, but Adobe doesn’t think so! Nowadays, I convert everything to a PDF or to illustrator before delivering my work to clients, or printers.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

The Horse in Motion /  Edouard Muybridge
The Horse in Motion / Eadweard Muybridge

Art (of all kinds: cave painting, Egyptian wall painting, classical, modern, all of it…); music (always jazz; Thelonious Monk, mostly, but more more modern stuff, too…Ari Hoenig, Dan Weiss, two amazing drummers); Eadweard Muybridge (his sequential photographs), Eric Gill (among other things, he drew the best typeface ever); Otto Neurath‘s and Gerd Arntz‘s work in the 1930s; and everything that information graphics designers are doing today.

What does your brainstorming process look like?
Most jobs start with reading and writing about the subject. My sketchbooks are actually more like written notebooks, filled with different ways to describe in words what i’m trying to explain in any given graphic. I think the best graphics I’ve done are a marriage of words and pictures (a good marriage!), and often the words are more important than the pictures (for which I use as simple a technique as I can, so that they have the same “weight,” or importance, as the words.) I sometimes send a sketch to the commissioning editor or art director, but more often I’ll do a pretty well finished piece; editors don’t have time for the back-and-forth of pencil sketch, revised sketch, first computer rendering, etc, so I do all that in a sort of brainstorming conversation with myself, trying to be as objective as possible. Ultimately it saves time. And if I do get it right with the first submission, everyone wins! Because most of the pieces I work on have some scientific, or medical, or complex financial component, I often bypass art directors (usually with their grateful acceptance!) and deal directly with editors, or the writer of the piece. This was always the way when I was a staffer at Time, but as a freelancer, not being physically present in the office, it took a little time when I first left Time to gain the trust of art directors at other publications.

If the deadline is not too pressing, I try to make time for reflection on my “final” solution before sending it off. Leaving something overnight, and seeing it with fresh eyes the next morning, often reveals possible changes that make a chart simpler and clearer (and sometimes it reveals a big mistake; thank goodness I hadn’t hit “send” the night before!)

Graphic for Instant Expert / Nigel Holmes
Graphic for Instant Expert / Nigel Holmes

Tell me some details about your favorite project from this past year.
“Instant Expert” is what the publisher Lonely Planet termed a “sister” book to one I did two years ago (“The Book of Everything”). In 2014, Lonely Planet gave me a very short time to do the 100 spreads for this new book (which included all the researching, writing and drawing). I had to complete roughly two spreads every day to get the job done by their printer’s deadline. So although it meant seven-day work weeks for 8 weeks, it was kind of thrilling; certainly very concentrated. My wife was wonderfully understanding!

What have you learned from the different experiences working with journalism clients and other companies like Apple, Nike and Taschen?
I’m amazed at the way different publications treat research and fact-checking. Some, like The New Yorker, National Geographic, Scientific American and The New York Times check every single little thing, as well they should. (Of course, they have the staff to do it.)

Graphic for The New Yorker / Nigel Holmes
Graphic for The New Yorker / Nigel Holmes

With those publications, I know I must leave enough time for the fact-checkers to do their work. Other places are much more relaxed about facts, which puts the responsibility on me to get things right. Sometimes I have to gently educate non-publishing companies about the ethics of charting and presenting numbers. Despite my reputation for illustrating facts and figures, and having fun with their presentation, I won’t cross a line that misleads, or that hides the real story, by exaggerating a scale, for instance.

There is a lot of focus on data visualization these days. How can DVers and information graphic artists work together to produce stronger storytelling and visual presentations?

Infographia Poster / Nigel Holmes
Infographia Poster / Nigel Holmes

I wrote an introduction to the latest Taschen book “Understanding the World,” in which I tried to address the difference between DVers and information graphic artists. Basically, it comes down to this: the data visualizers’ question is, “what’s the data?” (because many of them have a computer programming/academic background), while information designers ask: “what’s the story?” (because they have a journalistic/art background). So I’d hope that both try to understand the respective backgrounds, interests and strengths of the other side, then incorporate the best of both in their own work, whichever “side” they are on.

You gave a talk to SND previously on “why function always trumps format.” How can you maintain the simplicity you spoke of with changes in the news designing industry such as interactive tablet applications and the technology available?
I still believe in simplification, but I prefer the word clarification, because simplification can indicate dumbing down the material. I’ve been saying this for years…but making things simple (or clear) is even more important today given new technologies and the many tempting effects they offer. By “function” I meant that the reader/user should be able to understand the message or story, regardless of how the message was delivered (the “format”). I’m surprised by how often designers are seduced by technology, falling in love with effects and forgetting the real reason they have been hired to explain something. This is not to say that you can’t still have fun.

What do you hope to share with attendees at the SNDDC workshop?
I gave a talk at the first SND workshop in DC in 1980. So I’ll refer to what I said then, and show some of the work I was doing 35 years ago. (Ed. note: And Nigel will update attendees on what’s happened since, as this interview suggests.)

We’ll be profiling #SNDDC speakers all month. To register for the workshop, which runs April 9-11 in Washington, D.C., click here.

About Courtney Kan

is a designer at The Washington Post and the editor of SND.org.

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