‘Real Interactivity is Human’ or the World According to Nigel Holmes

After a day of design tips from the best the news industry had to offer, SND conference attendees heard keynoter Nigel Holmes talk about everything from teeth to truffles to Mozart and piano-playing cats — and, finally, the genuine “human” aspect of humor in design.

“Can you all hold this up? I want to show my wife and tell her you enjoyed this.”

How do you start off a session on humor? If you’re author, illustrator and information graphics specialist Holmes, you hand out cards illustrated with a “smile” and make everyone hold them up to their faces … so that he can take a photo as proof the session was enjoyable.

But perhaps getting the audience to “smile” really isn’t your only motive. What about that illustration? It’s about (bad) teeth (in England) and chocolate, he says.

“I never understood that phrase from “Forrest Gump,” ‘Life’s like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get’….because in England, you DO actually know what you’re going to get. They give you a chart to let you know.”

But the post card wasn’t really about the teeth or chocolate. Instead, it was Holmes’ way of easing the audience into a larger discussion of why such illustrations — and the graphic on the flip side of the card about why we love cheese — make us all smile.

From an illustration of his brain  (“Yes, I can look inside my own brain…can you imagine that?”) to how-to’s he designed for a now-defunct airline magazine and to section fronts he created for The New York Times, Holmes’ designs pushed creativity and bounds … though looking back, he said, he would do some things differently.

“I did some things that were, quite frankly, racist,” he said referring to an 1970s Time magazine illustration during the oil embargo.

While it’s important to take risks with humor, it’s just as important to know instances when humor is inappropriate, he said.

His trademark of making visuals more accessible to general audiences —using human figures, a simplified style and as few words as possible — also made his work a target for critics, he said, especially those in academia:

“While I got tons of fan mail for doing what he didn’t like, he got lots of money, for writing about the things I did that he didn’t like.”- he said about Edward Tufte

But he said one of the best ways to get people interested in information was exactly this way: By connecting with them.

“The best way to connect with [the audience] is to make them smile. I don’t mean just laughter. I mean real emotion.”

For Holmes, humor in illustration and graphic design means more than a cheap laugh. “Good humor” means “good feelings,” and a genuine connection to the audience’s emotions, he said. It was less about intellect, and more about the emotions that helped the audience relate to the information he was presenting.

“I’m not trying to trivialize information. I’m trying to POPULARIZE information!”

Holmes posed a question: Just because a thing is serious, does that make it authoritative?  Then he posed the inverse: Just because a thing is lighthearted, does that mean it’s not serious? 

Cat jokes aside — and he did demonstrate a“Cat Piano” app available for free on iTunes — Holmes said there is a difference between someone who creates data visualizations and another who creates information graphics. It’s the latter who says, “What’s the story?” getting to the heart of the best graphics: the content.

And when we do want to illustrate numbers and data?  Be careful, he said:

“We throw numbers around like we know what we are talking about. What are we going to do when we get to zettabytes? [...] we don’t recognize what they are..so innocent, these numbers.”

A quick call for six volunteers helped Holmes make the connection: What does a real-live representation of  1 million or even 1 billion seconds look like?

The former is 12 days, while the latter is 32 years. Visualization is tricky, Nigel explained. Genuine emotion and understanding, however, are not.

At the close he circled back to his long career, with gratitude:

“Thank you for inviting me back after 35 years … I hope to see you back here in about 50.”

In a keynote filled with quips and surprises, a few things were consistent: the hint of blue, the genuine laughter and hundreds of smiles.

The best thing an information graphics artist can hear: “Get. Understand. Or See it. ‘See’ meaning ‘understand.’ “


Want to learn more about Nigel Holmes? I interviewed Nigel after the session to go more in-depth on humor, political correctness, that harsh critic and, yes, even the color blue.

Q: Why do you believe humor is the best emotion to get your point across in information graphics?

Q: Did you ever receive backlash for the content of your infographics or illustrations? Is there ever a time you should stay away from humor in information design?

Q: How has academia changed in its view toward lighthearted graphics since you first began designing?

Q: Is there anything that can be done to help academics see the light when it comes to humor in infographic design?

Q: I need to know: What’s the deal with blue??