Visualisation Reflections: #9 Visual Journalist
This is a follow-up post to my ninth article in the Visualisation Insights series which I published earlier this week. The purpose of this companion series is to optimise the learning opportunities from each insights article, reflecting on the ideas, issues and observations to emerge.
Why did I choose this subject?
I’ve been fortunate to interview a broad variety of visualisation professionals during this short series to date, from designers through to bloggers. Whilst I have many, many more members amongst the field’s cast and crew to get through, one of the prominent gaps to date was that of Visual Journalist.
This role has clearly been established for longer than just the recent 4-5 year boom of visualisation (as you might describe it) but nevertheless it is one which has helped drive the success of the practice during this period, with the work of the New York Times and Guardian just two of the most celebrated hosts of such work.
Whilst the NYT gets a great deal of attention (and rightly so), people on this side of the Atlantic may not appreciate that the Wall Street Journal has more than double the daily circulation in terms of sales across the US, making it the most popular newspaper.
The opportunity to interview the Graphics Editor of the most popular paper in the US, therefore, was extremely appealing.
Impressions prior to the interview?
I first came across Sarah’s work when I read her article on Mix Online “The 7½ steps to Successful Infographics“, an entertaining and informing article that drew from her 20 years of experience creating infographics. Then, in September 2010, wonderfully out of the blue, Sarah sent me a nice email introducing herself, complementing me on my very first Insights interview with Michael Deal and sharing details of the imminent launch of the WSJ’s What They Know project.
Shortly after my first contact with Sarah, I was scheduled to travel to New York and she generously invited me to go along to meet her at the WSJ’s offices in the towering News Corp Building – it goes without saying that this was an amazing gesture and great pleasure.
As I took in the atmosphere of the stylish open floor where most of the WSJ staff operate, I was struck by the calmness of the entire office. It wasn’t the chaotic, bustling motion you associate with Hollywood’s portrayal of the Daily Planet or Daily Globe, rather, a clean, creative and effective working environment.
My key observation of Sarah and her team was the very apparent sense of professionalism and commitment to quality, a real enthusiasm for the value of graphics as a means of enhancing a story.
Impressions after the interview?
My first observation comes from Sarah’s description of how she grew up around art and graphic design. Whilst she appeared determined to avoid following a career path similar to that of her late father’s, inevitably she succumbed to the lure of graphics and frequently found herself involved in such activities early in her career.
Whilst she is clearly naturally talented, she has clearly been significantly influenced through her exposure to some of the very best in the business – Soma Golden Behr, Alice Alves and Charles M Blow, to name but a few,. All have played different but equally valuable mentoring roles – inspiring, motivating, encouraging creativity and promoting best practices:
Charles had the ability to find you work he knew would capture your imagination, then he’d gently encourage you to go off a cliff with the idea. At the 11th hour he’d swoop in and edit/art direct and fix it and make it so much better. It was infuriating. And I learned a ton…
My first year at Fortune all the graphics I did were based on everything I already knew how to do. Then this art director, Alice Alves, who was in charge of the 500 issue gave me this collection of beautiful infographics to show me what she wanted for the issue. And it was like, ‘Really, I can do this?’. So from that point forward the graphics I made were limited by my imagination, not my past knowledge.
Other strong influences on Sarah’s career emerge from the artists and creatives in the ‘real world’ from whom she seems to draw endless inspiration:
My style is a combination of design I’m drawn to – Arne Jacobsen furniture, James Thurber cartoons, Robert Rauschenberg collages – and design I can make to compensate for my shortcomings, which are myriad. For instance, I’ve learned to make offbeat tension functional because I don’t have the patience for mathematical precision.
When asked about her key design principles she replied “I try to answer ‘why do we care?’”. This is the ideal mindset, the necessarily challenging stance all designers must take when it comes to tackling a visualisation problem or indeed opportunity. There has to be purpose and meaning, it must respond to a defined question to which you are seeking a visual answer. As she outlines later, for journalism “the story is everything” and this is as true for print as it is for design.
The focus on the message is reinforced by Sarah’s key remark about her time at the NYT – “Graphics editors at the Times are also reporters which suits my personality“. This reveals how the best graphics and visualisation designers need a real eye for a story, a nose for a hypothesis and an ear for a problem – have I taken the body part analogy too far?
The responses to my design process questions, raised in relation to the ‘What They Know’ project, are consistent with other approaches I have identified from my previous interviews in this series. I was particularly interested by her response to ‘how you know when to end a design process’, especially her remarks on the importance placed on teamwork to achieve this:
I tend to question my ideas and I depend heavily on editors to see what I don’t. I’d be terrified to make work in a vacuum. When someone suggests a change, I try it. If it makes the work better, great. If not, I go back to a previous version. In the end, a week later you come back to something and see how you could have done things differently anyway. Iteration is a spiral, ideas are for sharing.
One of the key themes to emerge from this interview is Sarah’s natural creativity and innovative buzz, which manifests itself in her infographic designs and entertaining written style. Whilst this is a strong inherent quality, I was still intrigued by how she manages to prevent this ‘well’ running dry and keeps her mind refreshed given the relentless demands of this role:
I thrive on adrenalin, so pressure is oddly comfortable for me. At the same time, I’m very good at disconnecting completely from my work for a couple of reasons; I know that I need time to recover and empty my head so I can start fresh. I know my brain is always processing my work in the background so walking away, or walking over the Brooklyn Bridge is purposeful for me. I also live on the internet and consume mass quantities of art and design and illustration in all it’s forms. Then I fall in love with an idea. It sticks with me. If I carry it in the back of my mind later on I’ll bump into a chance to use it. Plus, I love my life. I’m blessed in many many ways
Many thanks again to Sarah for agreeing to take part in this interview – I found it a really rich account of her career path, her interests and a glimpse into her world as an prominent graphics editor. I wish her and all the graphics team at Wall Street Journal all the best for the future. Once again, you can follow Sarah’s twitter updates via @sarahslo and keep up with her projects on her personal website.
Look out for future insights articles, with many interesting interviews and interviewees lined up…