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Talking with... Juan Velasco

The Art Director of National Geographic talks about his work, how the publication is tackling the challenges of the digital age, and more.

July 8, 2014

What makes National Geographic magazine such a unique case in the publishing universe? A combination of things, of course, from the high level of precision reporting to the unique perspectives that only top-level visual journalism can provide. Information graphics and maps have been present in the publication’s 126 years of history, setting, in so many ways, the standards for the industry.

Photo: Juan Velasco

Currently, the magazine’s Art Director is Juan Velasco, one of those references in the field that needs no introduction. His curriculum speaks for himself, with passages in The New Times and El Mundo, and works published in several other publications, through 5W Graphics, an agency he co-founded in 2002, that helps companies from all over the world to improve the clarity and efficiency of their visual displays of information.

The quality of his work has been widely recognized in books, articles and, of course, the top awards in the industry: more than 50 Society for News Design awards, ten Malofiej awards, two Society of Publication Design awards, and one American Institute of Graphic Arts honour. And also a Pulitzer prize finalist in 2001, as part of a team of writers and visual journalists for The New York Times.

Alongside Alberto Cairo, John Grimwade and Geoff McGhee, Juan is also one of instructors of the Show, Don’t Tell infographics workshop, at the annual Malofiej convention, held in the University of Pamplona, Spain. In a certain (oversimplified) sense,  that’s pretty much how high you can aim to get in the field of visual journalism.

Looking at all this, this interview  is undoubtedly one of the high moments in Visual Loop’s (short) history. We hope you enjoy the conversation, with Juan sharing his thoughts on the work being done at National Geographic and in the industry as a whole, the adjustments he had to make when moving to the United States, and how the aspiring infographic designers should prepare themselves to deal with the ever-changing publishing landscape.

Visual Loop (VL) – Juan, tell us a bit about the cultural differences and the challenges you faced when first moving to the US, especially when it comes to the style of journalistic work you were used to, in Spain.

JV – I came to the US from el Mundo, in Madrid. At the time (1996) El Mundo was a newspaper that was giving lots of prominence to infographics and illustration, the visuals were amazing, with a lot of very young creative people. But when I started at The New York Times I soon understood I needed to acquire deeper reporting and researching skills. At the Times, the graphics team was responsible for proposing and entirely researching and writing all the graphics. The section had the same journalistic weight and hierarchy as any other in the paper, rather than being a service section that takes assignments for “real journalists”. It was an eye opener and a challenge.

VL – And were there similar impacts when moving from newspapers to a magazine such as National Geographic (NG)?

JV – Yes. The research phase at National Geographic is deep, intense, and very long. I’ve always considered we are in between scholarly journals and traditional media. Some project I have involved in took more than a year to complete. Basically we walk hand in hand with experts and consultant to create graphics on topics that often have never been done before because they are based on new, original research.

At National Geographic we also produce multiple sketches and versions of everything, and there is a level of detail and finesse in the production that I had not seen before.

The process is more difficult now since we need to create digital versions of most graphics for the web, iPad and even for smartphone.

VL – In ‘The Functional Art” you described some of the works you, Fernando Batista and the rest of the team developed at NG. It’s clearly another level of research, a standard that made NG probably one of the most recognizable publications in the World. How great has been, that whole experience, so far, and how did it helped you to expand your professional skills?

JV – It’s been amazing, of course. We are extraordinarily lucky to have a really long production time, although lately it’s getting shorter and shorter.

Personally, as art director, I have also learned a lot about working with artists, professional artists, sculptors, illustrators, and finding the balance about their artistic sensibility and our needs for accuracy and impact in the magazine. The conceptual and stylistic side of art is highly subjective but fascinating too.

And I think I have also learned about working with photographers and designers in an environment where each story has a unique look, voice and tone as opposed to a newspaper’s more homogeneous stream of content in terms of design The challenge is finding the tone, the dataset or the visual approach that elevates a particular story and marries the impactful photography and text seamlessly.

Lastly, I became a manager here and that has its own challenges and learning process.

VL – And besides the works mentioned in Alberto Cairo’s book, is there another one that was particularly challenging, or that has a curious story behind it, that you could share with our readers?

JV – I’ll give you one example that summarizes how deep we need to go into research. In 2013 we published an amazing 3D rendering of Manhattan, with every building on it, to show the potentially devastating effect of a superstorm in 2100, considering many variables: a 5 feet higher sea level, the storm surge, the morpho-geology and elevation of the terrain, and more. We worked for months with the Army Corps of engineers, NOAA and the National Weather Service because the complexity of the models to calculate how far the water would get into the city was extremely high.

After some time our sources shut off because they would rather not see it published before their own model was finished and presented to Congress. But our Senior Editor Ryan Morris worked tirelessly to calculate the variables by itself and render it in a beautiful graphic. We came ahead of the scientists before they presented their data, and they to admit it was perfectly accurate. All this work just to be able shade areas in a map with a high degree of confidence.

The 3D model itself was another nightmare of rendering time and precision.

(image: National Geographic)

 

Our cheetah anatomy graphic by Senior Editor Jason Treat was also quite unique. To generate the 3D image of a cheetah, we decided to use the real thing and create a CT scan of a complete real skeleton, obtained through scientists at the Smithsonian Institution. It was an awesome image and a great animation on the iPad,.

(image: National Geographic)

 

VL – Will you share more vintage graphics from NG on your blog? It must be quite an archive!

JV – The richness of our 126 years of art, maps and graphics is astonishing. I hope to make a great compilation in book form at some point because it deserves it. I haven’t been active in my blog lately but I promise I’ll bring more vintage classics soon.

VL – What about other publications that you’re particularly fond of, for its use of information graphics? Any recommendations?

JV – The New York Time is an obligated reference for anyone interested in top quality ideas, reporting, design and use of technology. Although sometimes they need to be a bit more user friendly or just more fun. But there are many other places doing fantastic work all over the world. I won’t name any because I would inevitably leave people out. Anyone interested in looking at the Malofiej annual books will see who is doing the best work in small and large organizations all over the world.

VL – In this digital age, sooner or later newsrooms have to deal with new technologies, such as mobile devices and soon enough, wearable ones, like Google Glass. I can only imagine the ‘nightmare’ of adapting a newspaper or magazine content to all those different means of consuming information. How have you guys coped with all this change, over the years?

JV – Yes definitely. We have been on the iPad since 2009, and National Geographic won the last two “app of the year” award and the National Magazine Award. And that’s in great part because of our use of graphics. The iPhone format is quite a challenge; summarizing massive amounts of information and the relatively complex design of many of our print maps and graphic in the tiny screen. You have to be minimalist and think of the one thing you want a reader to remember. One number, a simple range in a map, one chart. It’s a different way of thinking.

By the way, we have our own Google Glass edition already. So far it’s mostly an RSS feed of news and photos, but I hope graphics will make their way there too. What is clear is that we have a clear “digital first” directive now, and we are very conscious that readers consume content in the mobile device more than ever. We used to be a monthly journal, now we aim to become a constant stream of content on all platforms.

We have a clear “digital first” directive now, and we are very conscious that readers consume content in the mobile device more than ever. We used to be a monthly journal, now we aim to become a constant stream of content on all platforms.

 

VL – On the other hand, those same technologies do offer other possibilities for visual journalism, right?

JV – Yes, new technologies offer opportunities for sophisticated data exploration, interactivity, mapping. It’s important to follow what is happening in the field, and to know at least what is possible and how we can benefit from. Learning everything is an impossible task for one person but a team should have a range of skills enough to make an impact on any platform.

VL – Even so, when we talked with Jaime Serra (link), he alerted for that growing use of ‘data visualization’ as opposed to a ‘more clear’ – i.e. understandable – infographic design. You’ve also commented on that in a previous interview, back in 2011 (link). What must developers pay attention to, when creating these visualizations – or better yet, what should they learn from visual journalists?

JV – Many of the trendy data visualization projects that are so popular are seriously failing at delivering information clearly, which is the bread and butter of journalistic reporters and designers. Some of them can be considered more “data art” than information. But many people will get better at presenting big data (using large volumes of data as a source for stories) in a clear and meaningful way. And big data includes open data. The combination of the two democratizes information in a way that is quite genuinely new but it happens largely outside the newsrooms without the benefit of good editors.

What we have rarely seen is the talent to tackle these massive amounts on information with visual clarity, simplicity and insight. There are some good examples but, for the most part, sound journalistic graphics editing and the “data visualization” crowd have yet to meet formally and work together.

Developers must pay attention to the principles: learn how readers perceive, process and understand visual messages. Careful editing, finding the relevant message in the middle of the noise and delivering it in a clean, clear and beautiful way. Understand typography, color, hierarchy.

There are some good examples but, for the most part, sound journalistic graphics editing and the “data visualization” crowd have yet to meet formally and work together.

 

VL – Taking in consideration that an infographic is usually a team effort, what are the basic individual skills someone interested in pursuing a career in visual journalism should grow, while still in college – or even earlier?

JV – Obviously, journalistc skills are a must. Being able to conceive, research, design and produce content in a deadline oriented environment, which usually means working well in teams. You need to exercise independent judgment regarding sources of information and quality of information, and and analyze data from a variety of sources independently. You need to be familiar with story content and design considerations, and have an eye for visual hierarchy and color with clarity as your main goal. Ability to write concisely and to the point.

Nowadays it’s impossible to find one person that has the entire range of skills but things like hand-made illustration, GSI mapping knowledge or web skills (HTML, CSS, Javascript, D3, JQuery, etc) animation (After Effects), or 3D software will definitely help a lot. But the basics of journalistic storytelling, bringing clarity to complex information and revealing trends hidden in the data are the most important skills, and those are unrelated to knowing the software.

Graphics explain and turn on the light for readers to understand information. Don’t be confused by the trends and the noise. Simplify, be clean and stick to common sense principles of visual presentation. Think of how readers will process your content. Starting from that solid ground there is huge room for creativity and innovation.

Graphics explain and turn on the light for readers to understand information. Don’t be confused by the trends and the noise. Simplify, be clean and stick to common sense principles of visual presentation.

VL – To close, what are your thoughts on infographic design in Brazil? Any favorite works/ information designers over there that you’d like to mention?

JV – Brazilian graphics have had an outstanding level for many, many years, as well as a unique personality. The vibrance in the color palette and the uninhibited topics and techniques set them apart. Again, I would not want to mention any particular publication because it would be unfair to others I may know less.

VL – Thank you so much, Juan! All the best!

JV – Thank you!

 

We can’t thank enough to Juan, for the time he dedicated to answer our questions, and in case you haven’t it yet on your RSS reader, visit and bookmark National Infographic, where he writes about the work being done at National Geographic. Also, check out 5W Graphics for a wider range of his projects, and keep up with his updates on Twitter (@juanvelasco).

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

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