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Talking with... Norberto Baruch

Exclusive conversation with one of the great names of visual journalism in Latin America

March 15, 2015
(Norberto Faruch)

This week, we are heading to Pamplona, Spain, to attend the 23rd Malofiej Conference, and while we wait for the beginning of the world’s top infographic event, we bring to you this in-depth interview with one of the great names of visual journalism of these past years – one that we featured a couple of months ago in our Portfolio of the Week section, the Argentinian Norberto Baruch.

Prior to his current job at the new daily El Tiempo Argentino, “Norbi” – as those close to him call him – has worked in Clarín, Página/12, La Razón, La Nación and Crítica de la Argentina. Before getting into the print industry, he was art director at the advertising agency McCann-Erickson, with clients like Coca-Cola and Chevrolet.

Norberto has also teaches in several educational institutions and universities, has given workshops about infographics in several Latin newspapers, and also organized several events in Latin America. In addition to all those activities, Norberto still manages time to run one of the most popular blogs about infographic design and visual journalism in Spanish, called Visualmente, a reference in Latin America for almost 10 years.

We asked a few questions to Norbi, about his work, infographic design and visual journalism:

Visualoop (VL) – Norberto, great infographics are usually a team effort. But in your experience, what’s more important to become a good “one-man-show” infographic designer: artistic skills or journalistic background?

Norberto Baruch (NB) – It’s interesting to start with a question so “encarnadura”, as the Spaniards say. Because there is a tradition in the infographic world that has much to do with the formation of those working in those departments.

Usually infographic departments are comprised of graphic designers and this has led to a bigger focus towards the artistic skills, undermining the journalistic ones. And the reason is the ignorance of the companies that publish newspapers, when hiring a professional for the graphics department, since they all seem to only care about who can use a design program. Infographic design is one of the latest journalistic genres. Design schools do not prepare students to create infographics.

Of course you need artistic skills to be a good “one-man-show”, but if you intend to do real visual journalism and not just editorial design , you need to have a strong journalistic training. An infographic is nothing but visual journalism.

VL – And during you years working as a visual journalist, I’m sure you were involved in many great infographics. Can you share with us some of your favorite ones?

NB – I think the major infographics projects are summarized in a really strong achievement: having infographics turned into a fixed section in the newspaper where I work. “Tiempo” is the latest newspaper in Argentina. There’s a section called “Visual”, where on Saturdays I write a story that takes up an entire page – without ads -, while the Sunday section has always afull page graphics.

Interestingly enough, among other things, is that I decide the contents of the Visual section, with the support of the Society section editor, journalist Gabriel Giubellino. Furthermore, the Saturday story, the strongest of every day, strategically appears on page 2.

“Tiempo” is a small, young, daily, in where to dedicate a page on Sunday to a full infographic is a huge achievement. If we also consider the scenario of infographics in other Argentinian newspapers, which are becoming smaller and losing ground to the pictures, our approach is unique.

Our Sunday infographics focus almost exclusively on a theme, which has been supported by the highest authorities in the newspaper. The Journalism director, journalist Gustavo Cirelli, and the Editorial Secretary, journalist María Sucarrat, have realized the importance of developing a different journalistic space with these graphics, that relate to the characters in popular comics and cartoons. Sunday after Sunday, the page is cropped and saved by readers. Many of them framed it and hanging it in their homes. It’s really very hard to make a sheet of paper surive its normal fate: dying under the poop some domestic animal.

VL – Going back in time even further, how did you become interested in infographic design?

I studied journalism and held that interest for quite some time. But when I wrote my second book, “The Civil face of coups”, I felt that in addition to the hard information, product of months of research, these pages were asking me for something visual, something that showed the relationship of certain military personal with certain politicians and companies. Unknowingly, without naming it “infographics”, I started drawing these relationships like a very complex graphic, nearly a network visualization.

It was something very new to me, having almost no knowledge of design and layout programs, doing many things by hand. And this search was interesting because, by plotting those dark relationships, I had made more clear what to investigate. So the organization and visual order was serving me for what came next: textual research.

Notice how the graphics changed my way of researching – my first book (“The Catholic Universities”) could not be so clear as the second. The visual told me everything. The visual is part of the conceptual and that goes beyond the beauty of a design or bold and daring use of 3D programs.

Evidently, that was my fate: to continue doing journalism, but from the visual side, proposing and creating infographics. Few understand what is an infographic. Information graphics is losing ground in the daily press. Photojournalism is becoming more conceptual than an infographic.

VL – And what about Visualmente.info? Can you tell us a bit about this inspiring blog, and how did you manage to keep it up and running for so long?

NB – Visualmente is exactly 10 years now, and we want to celebrate it big. We started when nobody was interested in visual themes, in February 2005, with my friend, journalist Dolores Pujol; a blog under the Blogger platform with all the time limitations.

But it didn’t stop, and it turned out to be one of the leaders of visual journalism in Latin America. So much so that in 2009, Visualmente was one of the blogs that were recognized in the book “Blogs: Mad About Design”, edited by Maomao Publications, a publishing house based in Barcelona. It was an unexpected prize for me, as my partner was not with me.

For many years, all I did was updating the blog, which meant much, much work. But that never scared me. The sleeping hours were squeezed in, I was driven by a strange gain that is not measured in money. I never did advertising on the blog, so I never earned money to maintain it. We did it for pleasure, desire, and there were always great things to say

Now, 10 years after the creation, we have a very good site, not a blog, with the ability and talent of the Chilean designer Javiera R. Benavente. She convinced me to move to that next level in communication and today we have one of the most admired platforms in terms of interfaze-content relationship. With many new sections, with music, with viral content, Visualmente.info, so is his new name, it is again the leader in visual journalism and infographics. Javiera is a professional who has mastered the art of the visual and has a style that I really like to see more often in the Latin American journalism.

And that’s Visualmente, a site that “speaks” very well visual journalism, and we’re not afraid to criticize and to be encouraged to build where others do copy-paste. Our material, our content is unique, personal. Nobody drives us nor our thematic approach.

VL – Besides “Visualmente”, what other online references you recommend for those interested in knowing more about visual journalism and infographic design?

Today, you have many more blogs than in 2005, when Visualmente.blogspot.com began almost alone. Unfortunately, beyond the few sites that generate own unique content – as Visualoop does – , most only do the copy-paste in its discursive structure. They don’t understand that what really matters is the content, not the tool.

The way to do something “viral” bypasses the copy-paste, by breaking the rules of online marketing manuals. We seek themes and develop, we give identity to those behind a work.

That said, we really like Motion Grapher, The Cool Hunter, Abduzeedo, Design Boom, I Love Typography, Pixel Creation, among others.

VL – Speaking now about projects outside visual journalism: we loved your QR variation series – how did you came up with that idea?

NB – My designer side found a unique phenomenon. It’s a “boom”, say those who work in blogs about gadgets and technology. It is becoming, unlike the Bar Code invented by Joseph Woodland, Jordin Johanson and Bernard Silver in 1952, a kind of pop icon. The QR CODE (short for Quick Response code) is so visually cool for some, it seems almost a kind of Kanji (汉 字) extended.

Unofficial accounts of the QR code’s history state that it was created by Toyota subsidiary Denso Wave, in 1994, to track vehicles during the manufacturing process. Given the fast rate of car production, the code should be designed in order to be quickly decoded without error and oversight. Today, this pixelated iconography caused a visual revolution in the United States, Canada and Hong Kong.

All of this was a real challenge for me, as I wanted to see beyond what everyone saw. A code, above all, is a way of thinking visually, but nobody had realized the possibilities those black squares had. I guess I was the only one who understood this and turned the chaos in a portrait. I started with myself. I did my bearded face, no beard, Santa hat, pig-faced, dressed as Batman and Mexican wrestler, among others. Publishers of Spain and France have recognized our work with the QR Code. Something unique.

VL – You’ve also worked in marketing agencies, something that has given you, I suppose, a different perspective about the use of visual communication in the corporate environment. Taking that in consideration, why should a company use tools such as infographics? Is it just for internal and external communication?

NB – Today one can find infographic communications as part of advertising pieces aimed to the general public. Recently I saw oil and other companies using it to try to explain in a nearly-scientific way what actions they’re taking not to compromise the environment.

VL – Nowadays, it’s in fact becoming more and more common to see visual journalists being laid off, not because there’s a crisis in journalism, but perhaps because of a “business myopia” from news outlets that underestimated the digital revolution. How is the industry coping with that, in Argentina?

NB – The situation in Argentina is no different from the rest of the world. The crisis of the daily newspapers is being used by the owners to push people out, instead of trying to think of another solution. At this point I think that the crisis can be avoided if you really want to. Journalism has to reinvent itself. We can no longer play the inverted pyramid of the fifties. Universities and journalism schools can not continue teaching this.

Design universities have to start teaching that visual journalism is not “decoration”. Crises offer opportunities. We can not allow that new media owners, who know nothing of what journalism means, tell us what we need to do. We, journalists, photographers, designers and infographic designers, we are the ones that have to change the media. The people, the reader, is bored with the every-day journalism, they want something else.

With my infographics, I’ve come to places no one would have imagined. For example, this year will be the second that we are in the Argentina version of Comic Con, the maximum comic event in the world with our infographic comic book characters. It’s a different way of doing journalism. And people thank you, I assure you.

VL – In addition to your work in El Tiempo de Argentina, you also teach and minister workshops. What was the hardest question one of your students ever posed to you?

NB – Hahaha. I guess the harder question is made to do me all the time. Students believe that to make infographics you need to know how to use some 3D computer program, rather than understanding that the best program is the brain. An idea outperforms any software. I made infographics with clay, mud, paper and pencil. It doesn’t matter how the infographic is done, but why. One sometimes sees great infographic departments of major newspapers prioritize aesthetics, visual, regardless of the content too. It’s funny that there is the figure of the researcher in the departments, where research should be part of the work of infographic designer.

VL – And what tips and recommendations would you leave to someone who’s about to start in visual journalism

NB – Giving advice is a delicate and profound subject. I think the best tip is to be consistent with your words. Be a slave to them. If I speak of concepts, ideas, my infographics must have concepts and ideas. Luckily I have traveled extensively giving lectures and seminars, and I always like to close the group conversation with one message: Have passion for what you do. That will define your work, will make you respect it, and earn the respect of others. The passion for what you do is the key.

VL – To close, Norbert, any side projects or initiatives you are involved that you’d like to mention? Or perhaps future projects?

NB – I’m working every day to improve what I do, not to stay with the idea that this is already proven to work and will continue. Routine bores me. So I try to change each infographic I do, to reinvent myself. I spent writing to draw, draw and I went to make infographics.

I want to do new things each week and be very close to the people. Discuss with them, knowing what they want from a communicator. Our responsibility is very large in countries like ours. The reader deserves a better, closer, more personal visual journalism. I’m looking for that and I think I’m getting close.

VL – Thanks, Norberto!

NB – Thank you!

 

We really appreciate the time Norberto dedicated to answer this anterview. You can keep up with Norbi’s work on Visualmente, and also on Facebook.

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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