Data visualization is about understanding information, synthesizing knowledge and revealing emerging relationships between a variety of data, not only about beautiful graphics and charts. This month we talk with Alberto Cairo about his book on information design and about his philosophy as an infographics artist and author.
Just a quick reminder before getting to the interview: check out our monthly designer tips section, where you can find a great selection of books on infographics design and information visualization.
This Month's Spotlight Interview:
V: You are a role model for a lot of infographic designers and visual journalists starting their career in information design. What is your story?
Alberto: Well, I am a journalist. I studied Journalism in Spain between 1992 and 1997. When I finished my studies in journalism I got an internship at a radio station for a while. I wanted to work in a radio program, but at the end of my studies in journalism I received a particularly interesting proposition from my professor. She knew I drew a little bit by hand and she said she had been contacted by a very good local newspaper called La Vos de Galicia in Northern Spain. They contacted her because they wanted someone with a journalism background, but at the same time - who may be interested in a career in information graphics. I was already aware what information graphics are because I had a class on this subject, but it was rather theoretical and conceptual. So I accepted the internship and learned everything about infographics. I was in a very good department, one of the best in Spain. They taught me the basics of information graphics. After that it was just - you know - I loved it and I got into it, and eventually learned more about graphic design. I consider myself more a communicator , a journalist, but you have to know graphic design if you are going to do infographics. So that's my story...
V: On your blog there is a comprehensive list of books and works that shaped your career and style, from books on information visualization to manuals on cartography and cognitive psychology. If you had to sum up all this knowledge in a couple of words, what would best describe your design philosophy?
Alberto: It's pretty simple to understand, I mean it is actually the title of my book... Information graphics are functional art. That's the core idea of the book and also of my philosophy. That has a lot of implications; it seems like a no-brainer, but it is not. Many people don't really understand this idea, many people don't really apply this idea when they do information graphics because they think first about aesthetics, before thinking about the structure, the information or the reliability of the data. The core idea in my philosophy is that you have to borrow conceptual and technical tools from a variety of disciplines such as graphic design, journalism, cartography, statistics, cognitive science and bring them altogether into infographics. Create graphics that are made with the idea in mind that they must first be tools for understanding. They're not, you know - funny looking presentations; they're not pretty designs or something that needs to be beautiful first. They have to be conceptually correctly designed. After you make sure you have the correct data, you can start thinking about typography, color and style. Graphics are like tools, for example like hammers, which have a particular shape to fulfill a particular function. The same thing can be applied to infographics. They have a set of functions and must be designed accordingly. After the design is functional, you can start worrying about everything else.
V: What is the core concept of your newest book, The Functional Art?
Alberto: It's the same thing. That's what I discuss in the book. I build on the theories created by a lot of different people, cartographers, statistical charts creators and I try to bring them all together and try to extract the best of all of them and propose my own idea, that infographics are functional art. Why the title? Before coming to Miami I spent two years working as an information graphics director at Epoca Magazine in Brazil and I was a consultant for a lot of different newspapers and magazines. In Brazil infographics are usually called arts, so instead of saying, "Let's do an infographic on history, a statistical chart or a map", they usually say, "Let's do an art". It's a generic term, applied to anything that is not text or photograph. I believe it's wrong. Calling infographics just art makes people think that the priority when creating an infographic is to make it look beautiful. This is not a priority, but it's important. Infographics have to be beautiful and have to be attractive, but that's not a priority. The priority is to make them functional, to communicate something. I tried to fight that idea for a while, but I gave up, because this idea is rooted in the culture. Then I agreed to call infographics art, but proposed that it should be called "functional art". First of all, it needs to be functional, and then it can be art. This is the core idea of the book. That doesn't mean that I think aesthetics are unimportant for infographics, they are truly important and here's where I bring other people into the book, such as Nigel Holmes, whose graphics are fun, beautiful and interesting. Nigel also thinks that infographics have to be first of all functional. That's the core idea of the book.
The book is published by Peachprit Press and is going to be released in United States in August this year. The English version of the book will be 100 pages longer, including interviews with over 10 top professionals such as Moritz Stefaner, Juan Velasco, Fernando Baptista, Geoff McGhee, Xaquín González, Stefanie Posavec, Jan Willem Tulp, Gregor Aisch, Jan Schowchow and more. The book will also include a 90 mins DVD with lectures on information graphics and visualizations.
V: What is the greatest challenge in creating and designing infographics for breaking-news coverage?
Alberto: The greatest challenge is never the technical part of the infographic. I had a very good team I worked with, people with great skills, specialists in specific areas. The challenge in infographics is always getting the information right. So, the first challenge that we faced in some cases, was to get data. The Freedom of Information Act in Brazil doesn't work properly: you have the right to get information from the government but you can't get the data in the form that you need it to be. Sometimes they release data in pdf format, which is totally unusual, because you have to extract the data from it. In the reconstruction of breaking news content, such as the shooting in a school in Brazil where a lot of kids died, the challenge is always to get the information right. The way we did it was always to send a reporter to the scene and coach that reporter to gather the information that we needed: interview witnesses, victims, people who could give us the information that we needed. That's the challenge that you face when creating an infographic for breaking news coverage.
Can you tell us more about "deep simplicity", your personal manifesto in visual journalism?
Alberto: That is a concept I am still working on. I will probably extend this idea and transform it into a book eventually. It's basically a manifesto that says that complex information doesn't necessarily imply the use of complex graphics. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn't. In many cases you can transform any complex of data into simple graphics. That doesn't mean you have to simplify, it means that you have to clarify things. This is the core idea behind my personal manifesto. It's not a very original idea either, it has been going on in this industry for a while, but I believe that it deserves to be seriously conceptualized in a theoretical form, in a systematic way so you can explain how to apply that idea to a real world. What we are witnessing now is, particularly with data visualization growing up, that people from different backgrounds tend to create overly complex visualizations with no need. Sometimes they get a very complex data set and create a very complex visualization without taking care or paying attention to who their readers are, what their readers are capable of, or how to organize information so you can layer it from the very basics to deeper and deeper layers of data.
V: You describe yourself as being a teacher at heart, and at the moment you are working on a new Master Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. What are your goals in 2012 for this program?
Alberto: I am currently working on two different programs. One is a Masters Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is called The Master of Arts in Technology and Communication and it's an online program. I am going to teach information visualization, and my goals are to give the students a clear idea of what information graphics and visualizations are. At the same time, I am going to teach at the University of Miami. I will work with undergraduate communication and journalism students and Masters students. This program was already very good for students interested in storytelling and programming, so I came with the visualization part and built it in. By the time they graduate, students will know how to do video, write a story and create beautiful visualizations.
V: What piece of advice would you give to graphic designers and aspiring infographic designers around the world reading this interview?
Alberto: My main advice is think about structure and function first. First, gather and analyze your data. Ask yourself what that information is important for, why would your readers care about that information? Your infographic should be a tool. If your readers need to compare data, then your infographic should have a particular form. If readers need to see trends throughout data, the infographic should have a different form. Another piece of advice is - learn. It's not only about learning software or reading graphic design articles. If you want to do work in infographics, you are not just a graphic designer, you are a communicator. You should be a person who is curious about the world, so read as much non-fiction as you can - read about science, politics, sociology and so on. Train yourself to be curious and read as much as you can because when you do that, you learn to process information quickly and appropriately. You will then be able to read huge amounts of information, but still be able to synthesize that information somehow, organize it in your mind and deliver it. That's the key skill you have to learn.
Thanks for the interview and keep in touch!
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The Velora Studios Team
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