In order to sprinkle some star dust into the contents of my book I've been doing a few interviews with various professionals from data visualisation and related fields. These people span the spectrum of industries, backgrounds, roles and perspectives. I gave each interviewee a selection of questions from which to choose six to respond. This latest interview is with Katie Peek, Information Graphics Editor at Popular Science magazine. Thank you, Katie!
Q1 | What was your entry point into the field: From what education/career background did you transition into the world of data visualisation/infographics?
A1 | My journey was circuitous but ultimately pretty logical. I started as a scientist. Well, technically, my first job out of college was teaching high-school physics. Then I did a Ph.D. in astronomy. Then I shifted into science journalism, doing a second grad degree for that. The design part came last. That I learned while working as a designer at Popular Science, where I commissioned illustrations and laid out pages. But information visualization was a constant throughout this journey, actually. As an astrophysicist, had extraordinarily good-looking charts my published academic papers. And in journalism grad school, I honed my interviewing and writing skills, for sure, but I knew by then that data-viz was where I wanted to be, so I also took every opportunity to expand my practice. I started in the design gig at Popular Science because I had the visual acumen to explain the science clearly to the technical illustrators who work for the magazine. Finally, I pulled all that together and started in my current role, where I'm the editor at Popular Science who conceives and commissions or makes our data visualizations, charts, infographics, and maps.
Q2 | We are all influenced by different principles, formed through our education, experience and/or exposure to others in the field - if you had to pick one guiding principle that is uppermost in your thoughts as you work on a visualisation or infographic, what would it be?
A2 | Our audience is not a captive one. They're choosing to read our magazine or web site, but if the visualization fails them in some way, they will move on. Fast. So the subject needs to be gripping, or the presentation needs to be enticing, or the text needs to sail flawlessly, or the interface needs to be nearly invisible. If the point is simple, we need to strip away everything that might slow the reader down in understanding it. If the point is complex or subtle, that's fine—but all the introduction and explanation the reader will need has to be seamlessly easy to follow. Somehow, they have to want to get there. My main job is to figure out how to help them want it.
Q3 | As Information Graphics Editor one of your frequent roles will be to commissioning and coordinating others to contribute designs to the magazine. As you operate at the junction between designers/developers and domain experts, what would you describe as being the most important attributes that help make the experience as effective and efficient as possible?
A3 | Having experience in both. I often make graphics myself, and I do a lot of coding myself, so I know pretty well what's possible in that realm, even if the stuff I commission is beyond my own technical capabilities. And I've got background as a domain expert, so I know just how much insight the person who created the data has to offer. (Imagine me sitting night after night at a telescope, slowly building up a record of a star's motion over months and years—that was my experience in graduate school. You know the insights and limitations of data so well if you've collected it yourself.) Because I speak the language of data, I can talk pretty efficiently with the experts who made it. It doesn't take them long, even if the subject is new to me, for them to tell me any important caveats or trends. I also think that's because I approach that conversation as a journalist, where I'm mostly there to listen. I find if you listen, people talk. (It sounds so obvious but it is so important.) But going into that conversation, I have in mind what I want to get out of it—by which I mean, I know where I think I'd like the graphic to go, what trends I think it should highlight. And that lets me ask smart questions. I find if you ask an insightful question, something that makes them say "oh, that's a good point," the whole conversation opens up. Now you're both on the same side, trying to get this great data to the public in an understandable way. I promise I'm not just saying "be brilliant!" I mean that if you're really listening when you talk to the expert, but you also know what you want out of the graphic, the good questions will come up. And working together toward the same goal makes everything more efficient. The flip side of that is being totally willing to throw out your original idea and go with a different angle if the expert convinces you your first idea is flawed. And actually, in working with designers, pretty much the same thing applies. I know what's best for my readers, and I go in with a design approach I think will work, but I absolutely respect the designer's take on the data. I think all that boils down to: have your own ideas first, but then, listen.
Q4 | You will also play a key role in evaluating work that you commission. What are some of the key components of assessment you are making when determining if a design is at the right level to be published?
A4 | Well, I work out what the level and angle should be well in advance of commissioning anything. I spend a lot of time with the data myself, exploring (and cleaning). Once I have a few ideas for trends that would be interesting to highlight, I talk to the people who made the data, other experts in the field, and my fellow Popular Science editors to hone the angle further. Usually I make a sketch of the layout, too. Then, I go to the design studio with all that in hand, but also very willing for them to find a totally new way to visualize the data that I hadn't thought of. I love when that happens! But as long as I know the single most important point the graphic needs to make—usually, something simple enough that it can become a headline for the page—I can assess whether the commissioned work is at the right level.
Q5 | Do you have any advice on what helps you demonstrate such a strong capability to take complex and/or complicated subject matters and make them accessible and interesting to your audience? Linked to this, how do you judge the sweet spot of accessibility - not oversimplified or dumbed-down but still understandable to non-specialists?
A5 | I choose my angles very carefully. We're a general-interest science and technology magazine, with a fair number of teenage kids and laypeople who read it, so I always keep them in mind when I'm designing something. I picture the reader who's picking up Popular Science on a newsstand for the first time, and just flipping through it for a minute and a half. I want those readers to get something out of the graphic. But I also want to satisfy what I think of as the retired-engineer part of our audience. These are the readers who are very knowledgeable scientists or science enthusiasts. (We get plenty of mail from these folks if we make a mistake!) My goal is to create a graphic that satisfies both. Even if the subject-matter expert doesn't necessarily learn something, I still want them to respect what we're doing and the trends we've chosen to highlight. Some of that comes from my background as a professional scientist. As anyone who's an expert in anything knows, it's pretty common to pick up a news article about something in your field and feel that while the reporter is technically right, they've somehow missed the big picture, the important trends or gaps in our understanding. (They're more not-wrong than they are right.) So in a sense, I serve two masters: I want the expert to respect our choices, even if they don't learn anything new, and I want the teenager who's just encountering the subject for the first time to be able to understand point the graphic is making. I was a high-school physics teacher at earlier in my career, and I still lean on that experience to remember the level and mindset of a novice. (I think my two imaginary readers are very similar to Shan Carter's Bart-and-Lisa-Simpson framework.) Do I have any advice? Think of the reader—a specific reader, like a friend who's curious but a novice to the subject and to data-viz—when designing the graphic. That helps. And I rely pretty heavily on that introductory text that runs with each graphic—about 100 words, usually, that should give the new-to-the-subject reader enough background to understand why this graphic is worth engaging with, and sets them up to understand and contextualize the takeaway. (We often run a nerd box as well, that gets into more detail and caveats. That satisfies the retired engineers.) And annotate the graphic itself. If there's a particular point you want the reader to understand, make it! Explicitly! I often run a few captions typeset right on the viz, with lines that connect them to key elements in the design.
Q6 | From your experience of publishing for print, what are some of the key tips you would offer to people creating visualisation work designed for print output?
A6 | The beauty and frustration of print is the lack of a time dimension. We have to guide readers through the static graphic very carefully, by making conscious graphic design choices that create a visual hierarchy of information. When I'm designing a big piece for print, before I even start to sketch, I begin with the question "If a reader learns just one thing on this page, what should that one thing be?" And then I try to design a graphic that highlights that single takeaway as strongly as possible. Then, with that structure in place, I can add additional layers of information to satisfy the curious reader who engages with the page more completely. It's a useful framework for any piece, of course—static or interactive—but with print we need to be extra disciplined about it.