Exclusive conversations about infographics and data-vizualization

Talking with... Jaime Serra

Exclusive interview with one of the most respected infographic designers in the world.

November 19, 2012  |  CATEGORIES: Interviews

Entrevista com Jaime Serra

(photo: Jaime Serra)

A few weeks ago, I attended the INFOLIDE 2012 conference, Brazil’s most important event of editorial and infographic design. One of the speakers was no other than Jaime Serra, who shared with the mesmerized audience a sample of his work at La Vanguardia newspaper. He’s the Assistant Chief-Editor of the Barcelona-based newspaper, but the focus of his presentation was the narratives he publishes on his Sunday column.

Serra is one of the most important names in the contemporary infographic scene. Elected by his peers as the most influential infographic designer in the last 20 years, at Malofiej20, his contribution to the field of visual journalism has been praised all over the world – the recognition of a work that brought him to the same level of important figures like John Grimwade, Nigel Holmes and Fernando Baptista.

During his career, he has assisted newspapers and magazines such as The Intependent ; National Geographic Magazine ; Corriere Della Sera, Il Sole 24 Ore, Gazzeta dello Sport, La Stampa; Editora Abril, Folha de Sao Paulo; El Periódico de Catalunya, Grupo Vocento, Tele 5, El Mundo Deportivo ; Clarín, La Nación, La Voz del Interior, Olé ; El Comercio, La República ; Diario de Noticias, Jornal de Noticias , just to quote some.

But Jaime is also a multidisciplinary artist, a self-taught creative machine that has only one simple rule: do it all. Experiment, try, reinvent, challenge yourself. Learn by doing it. Learning is the ultimate reward.

Obviously, Art and Journalism are two very distinct things, and Jaime was kind enough to share his thoughts with us about both  worlds.

Visual Loop (VL) – To begin, the obvious question: what’s  infographic design, according to Jaime Serra?

Jaime Serra (JS) – In general terms, it’s a form of communication that uses visual language and text. Both languages are complementary, part of a whole, and therefore can’t be understood when separate. Where there is no image, the text doesn’t make sense, and vice-versa. The same language, with some variations, is used for different purposes, including: science, art, advertising or journalism.

I don’t think infographic design can be described or defined ‘according to’ someone. It’s not the perspective of a particular person. Most of the professional infographic designers have hold to certain standards long enough to establish a clear and consensual definition of what is our profession.

The fact that this is an common question gives the idea that the definition of ‘infographics’ is something open to a debate, with different opinions about the subject. I don’t think so. I can’t conceive it as an usual question for other professions, for example “According to you, what is physics?” It could be “For”, in terms of what personal significance it has for a particular individual, but never “according”.

VL – Looking back to your 25 year career, what changed in the way you use infographics?

JS – I have the privilege of belonging to a generation of professionals that coincided with the emergence and massive growth of infographics in the print industry. Back in the end of the 80′s, the concepts were vague and we had to try to define them. We had to shape our profession. In creative terms, we couldn’t be more fortunate. It was always understood that it was a combination between visual and written language. But the way you understand this combination has undergone significant changes over the last 25 years.

Fortunately, there has been a continuing trend: increasingly value the accuracy of information, even to the detriment of the – always subjective- graphic appeal. Thus the profession has gone from being considered a form of illustration to a form of journalism.

Of course there are historical precedents, most of them scientific, but you could also find good journalistic examples in libraries. Anyway, the most notable influence at that time came from the U.S. press in general, and in particular from the USA Today. Paradoxically, perhaps the most influential practitioners of that period were English, although both worked in New York: Nigel Holmes permeated in Time magazine a very distinctive style and John Grimwade gave us lessons in synthesis with his fine representations in axonometric perspective in Condé Nast Traveler.

The main formal changes, directly related to the journalistic use, were surely the ones related to illustration. In the late 80′s much of the work seemed to consist of ‘entertaining’ statistical data through formal presentation, usually drawings. Over time, it became sort of a rule that illustrations were not necessary, not only because they didn’t contribute  with the information but also because they were distracting the reader, or sometimes even worse, sending contradictory messages. And the graphics that told the events were very schematic or representing the facts in a deficient way.

During the 90′s, infographics with powerful illustrations seemed essential to clarify certain information and news stories generally, but we also looked for an angle in the story that allowed the inclusion of this type of graphics. Today, that view has changed, thanks to ‘data’. So, now we find news media needing a graph whose center is an illustration and yet with an approach from a perspective that puts the emphasis on the data. The so called ‘data visualization’. Having technology that allows us to collect and present countless data accurately is an exciting topic, but in many cases I find an abandonment of one of the fundamental work of journalist: the edition. I don’t think that we have to offer all the data the reader just because we have it, our job is to select those we consider really important for our readers and offer them in a simple way. That is, doing a major journalistic work: editing.

Back to the fortune I had of being able to participate, due to a generational coincidence, in defining the concepts that would guide infographic creation, I must say that there’s perhaps another possibility: The fact of being hired to build an infographic department for the main daily newspaper in a country where the profession didn’t exist, it was kind of an handicap. But I learned to find ways to turn this apparent disadvantage into a wonderful opportunity: if there were no prejudged concepts I could reinvent the ones I had, or at least question them freely.

From that opportunity came two fundamental concepts: the use of different illustration styles to enhance the information content within the first eye contact and the feasibility of having a personal style, individual.

I don’t think that we have to offer all the data the reader just because we have it, our job is to select those we consider really important for our readers and offer them in a simple way. That is, doing a major journalistic work: editing.


VL – To talk about references with a journalist is something that can easily take us to long conversations. But if you could name three persons, journalists or others, that influenced you as a professional, who would they be?

JS – Please note that I am completely self-taught. My main way of learning has always been by doing all I could. Also I don’t make a clear distinction between the influences that impact the profession and those that affect the personality, to understand life as a whole. In fact, I think it’s these last ones that modify the most the work you do, in a most deep and permanent way, because by varying the way you see reality you’ll be doing the same in your work. So, the number of influences is enormous. Your question demands the such an exercise that I simply can’t do it. However, I can think of three cases, which most likely will not be the most important, but they are at least curious:

My interest for work performed manually, with plastic treatments, coincided with the discovery of an American school of illustration, that has Henrik Drescher as its most important name, at least for me. His influence on the nervous stroke and collage stayed with me for a long time.

As for how to run a department to make the best, I’ll share with you something fun. The Clarín was my deepest experience and it happened with a specific football age: Johan Cruyff‘s Barcelona dream team. Cruyff’s essential concept, the ‘total football’, somehow was present during the department’s decisions and creations. The importance of youth academies – in the newspaper, our trainees and interns -, accuracy in the game without giving up the show, a clear style to be always followed, risk and individual talent supported by a team where everyone could play in any position …

A bit more recently, and at a deeper level, I must go with a text-visual combination of Duchamp & Burroughs. Marcel Duchamp was, as a matter of fact, the most important artist of the 20th century – who’s influence is still felt. He was also the most objective creator, if not the only, of the use of infographics for an artistic end.

One of his most important works, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”, is clearly an infographic representation, a subjective infographic. To allow a full understanding of this work, Duchamp left a series of texts in “The Large Glass”. Both elements, the artwork and the text, are essential to understand it. I think this is the most amazing subjective infographic of all time.

As for William S. Burroughs – the opposite of Duchamp as an individual- his philosophy about the limits and malleability of language has had a profound depth in me, and therefore, in my latest work.

VL – Being recognized as the Most influential infographic designer of the past 20 years, at Malofiej 20, was the culmination of your career? Or  it was just another important moment, one of many?

JS – “Culminate” sounds a bit like reaching the top, from which point the road only goes down. It’s an idea that has to do with the passage of time. It’s scary. I like to think that I’ll never put the flag on the top, I’ll always see the clouds above, touching gently a mountain peak that I’ll never reach.

Of course there were other important moments, lived perhaps with more intensity because I was more excited about journalism, so every new experience related to work had more value. The works by which I think I was honored with that award had already achieved recognition at the time they were published. That gave me access to extremely enriching career opportunities, jobs that forced me to make difficult decisions. It allowed me to keep learning – that is, after all, the best reward.

Moreover, I never forget that it’s just an award. Extremely rewarding, of course, especially considering it was a vote of nearly 3,000 professionals worldwide, one where John Grimwade, Nigel Holmes and Fernando Baptista were finalists and any of them would have been a worthy winner. But it’s just a prize, the next day you wake up and face the same old problems in the newsroom.

VL – ‘Infographics is not art, but art can be an infographic’. This was the title of a recent workshop at an event in Brazil. Can you briefly explain what’s behind this statement? Apparently, a simple play on words, but it’s something that is closely linked to your work in recent years, the weekly column in La Vanguardia, isn’t?

JS – It is a play on words, yes, and all the play on words hide something. Two apparently contradictory statements with an obvious meaning.

Indeed, this is linked to a ‘crisis’ with my most recent work in La Vanguardia. I have always stated – and still do – that journalistic infographics is not art (at least as far as I understand what Art is). Every professional working in a newspaper should feel, think, be a journalist. Typesetters, photographers, graphic designers, the goal is to explain the news and tell the stories in the most attractive, accurate and simple way as possible.

The aesthetic is something entirely subjective and therefore secondary. Nothing that is published in a newspaper should be born with the purpose of being seen as art. Now, it’s another thing if the reader / viewer considers that piece of journalistic work also as a form of art. This has ofetn occurred, for example, with photojournalists. Some of the most important museums in the world have photographs in the walls from Weegee or Capa, but when these photojournalists captured those images they were not thinking about the composition or the light, only in capturing the news.

During the time I was creating infographics with a strong ‘plastic’ appeal, many colleagues said that I was doing Art. I understood them and I’m thankful for the compliment, but it’s a comment that always bothered me. Personally, I think art is something else, it has more to do with ethics than aesthetics.

Today’s art is one of the most open activities out there, an efficient artistic discourse can be made using the most rigorous infographic. There is a history of the use of infographics for artistic purposes, from Rudolf Steiner‘s slates (although they we’re not born as art, in a way similar to Cappa or Weegee), to, again, Duchamp. And we can say that now the use of data visualization for artistic purposes is widespread.

For me, the main difference between journalistic and artistic infographics is that, while in the first information must try to be as objective as possible, the second supports a complete subjectivity and can lend itself to different interpretations, all of them valid. That’s the concept of ‘subjective infographic’, something apparently contradictory.

The columns that you refer to in your question are opinion pieces. The reader is clearly informed that it’s not news, only the specific perspective of a particular individual. Usually, in these opinion columns the author has the freedom show personal perspectives, and that’s what I’m trying to do, but without confining myself to the content.

Is it art? I don’t think so, and in any case what really matters is if you have enough interest for a group of readers. But I admit that I needed the corroboration given to me by amazing professionals like Pablo Corral Vega, Roberto Guareschi, Mario Tascon or Alfredo Tribiño about the journalistic nature of these columns. It’s journalism, a new journalism perhaps, but journalism. Their opinions was crucial for me to overcome my own prejudices about what is journalism or not, and therefore what should be published or not in a newspaper.

The main difference between journalistic and artistic infographics is that, while in the first information must try to be as objective as possible, the second supports a complete subjectivity and can lend itself to different interpretations, all of them valid. That’s the concept of ‘subjective infographic’, something apparently contradictory.

VL – Looking now at the newspaper market, it has become clear that most of them have been struggling to absorb the new reality of the way people consume information. But not everything that came with the Internet is bad for newspapers and magazines, isn’t it? In your opinion, what are the main  opportunities that the print industry is losing?

JS – Immediately, I think it’s a mistake that traditional media tries to compete with the digital media. Digital media is a wonderful excuse to change the paper size in the opposite direction to which we are doing: more text, more analysis, more depth, more rigor, less and better edited images – i.e. better journalism. Without the need of immediacy,  for that is already achieved through those new channels we use to consume information. Both media could coexist, at least for a while.

Technology, new media, that’s not a problem, on the contrary, we never lived in a better time than the present to investigate and distribute information. Because of this we are in crisis, but every crisis is a transition, and always leads to a better place. I have no doubt that we will find the appropriate path.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine a society without anyone fulfilling the role the media has played. Citizen journalism is not journalism, it’s just raw data.

The big mistake we made, the real dilemma, is not between digital or paper, is between journalism and money. When I started in this profession, 25 years ago, the main goal was to do good journalism. As a result you can make money, but the other way around doesn’t work. If the primary purpose becomes making money, you can’t do good journalism, and the financial results are almost never good enough. compared to speculation in any other sector. Today, in general, it’s not the reporters who are in charge, but businessmen who often don’t know anything about the profession. Another perversion of the paper-digital dilemma is that one is paid and the other is free, so the real question is paid versus free and it is ridiculous to pay for something I can get for free. We must increase the quality for those willing to pay.

I can’t imagine a society without anyone fulfilling the role the media has played. Citizen journalism is not journalism, it’s just raw data.

VL – What about the question of underestimating the reader? Assuming from the beginning that he will not understand more complex and elaborate narratives? Could this be one of the possible reasons for people to lose interest in traditional media?

I work with the idea that the ‘reader’ doesn’t exist. That’s a very common marketing concept widely spread in newsrooms today. There is such entity as ‘the reader’, there are readers, with sensitivities, interests and very different cultural levels. The only reader that I know about is myself, and I’m sure there will be others interested in the same things that interest me. I think the only option left is to work thinking of oneself as a reader. That way, ‘underestimating the reader’ would be underestimating ourselves, and I prefer to think that my readers are intelligent and sensitive people.

Besides, we know that not all readers are interested in economic or political analysis, and we don’t stop publishing them because of that. Not everyone has to understand certain visual journalism proposals, It doesn’t have to be for everyone.

It is possible for a person with a low cultural level doesn’t read a very sophisticated newspaper, but it is also a possibility that a reader with a good cultural level stops reading a newspaper that’s offering him nothing more than something obvious, simplistic.

VL – To close, what advises would you give to someone that is thinking about making a career as an infographic designer in the media industry?

JS – I think it’s a bad advice to listen to advises. One should learn and draw his/her own conclusions. The need to be well informed is greater than ever, the number of channels to provide news and stories is bigger than ever, so there is a business potential more real than ever. The most interesting suggestion that comes to my mind is to devote time to discover the new business model.

As for the infographics, I think the paper is still the best of all medias. I don’t know if digital media will have a future as healthy as the recent past in print media. The digital environment allows plenty of images, video, audio; infographics introduce a dynamic into a static support, but it doesn’t look like the Internet needs that extra dynamism. Infographics will continue to exist in any media format that is committed to quality, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be something with value nowadays, and making infographics is expensive.

VL – Thank you very much, Jaime!

JS – Thank you!


We’d like to thank Jaime Serra for his availability and detailed answers. You can follow his work on his blog and keep up with his updates on Twitter (@ja_serra).

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