Throughout these past three years, we have been fortunate enough to publish exclusive interviews with some of the great visual journalists and infographic designers out there. And it goes without saying that it’s a pleasure to bring in this section another one of those unmissable names in the infographic world that we met at this year’s Malofiej: John Grimwade.
John spent several years as graphics director of Condé Nast publications, in New York, after more than a decade in the newspaper industry in London. As a freelancer, he has works published in dozens of magazines, newspapers and books, and won multiple times the top awards of visual journalism.He is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Ohio, in the School of Visual Communication.
It’s hard to say how many visual journalists and information designers were influenced so far by his work, much of it thanks to all the workshops, courses and universities he has taught at – like the “Show, Don’t Tell!” workshop, that brings together the worlds of print, digital and multimedia and is led by other three instructors of notable international prestige, besides John: Alberto Cairo, Geoff McGhee and Juan Velasco.
In the following interview, John talks about data visualization, Malofiej, and how the industry evolved in these past decades.
Visualoop (VL) – Back in 2010, when reporting from Malofiej, you talked about how “data visualization is killing infographics in the newsroom” was really bothering some visual journalists. Five years later, do you still feel that there’s that level of distrust regarding the role of big number-crunching graphics in the popular press?
John Grimwade (JG) – First, I think it’s important to say that I’m not, in any way, against data visualization. Not at all. It’s a fundamental component of information design. People are nervous about the implications of “Big Data,” but some data has enormous potential to make our lives better. And there are places that are making really compelling infographics using huge datasets.
I was talking about a trend to produce sterile, unfocused data visualizations, with no clear message. They run counter to the idea of making infographics that engage and inform the general public. Some of them are perhaps good for a specialist audience, but are too dense and cryptic (for me, at least).
Everyone in the business is talking about “storytelling” now, and that is a response to these kind of criticisms. Of course, the use of fundamental journalistic principles will be the answer. There is some improvement, but still a way to go.
VL – Malofiej has become the best place to get a sense of what is exciting in the infographic world. And you have been a part of its international success, with the “Show Don’t Tell” workshops, alongside Alberto Cairo, Geoff McGhee and Juan Velasco. How did it all begin?
JG – Juan, Alberto, and Geoff have been a huge part of Show Don’t Tell history. The workshop for professionals has been part of the Malofiej summit right from the start (in 1993). And I’ve been involved in 18 workshops!
Alberto and Geoff joined the instructor team (which at that time was Juan and me) to cover the online and interactive side, and the workshop projects were split in two. In recent years, we’ve reflected the changes in the workplace, and united the workshop as one entity.
Needless to say, I have enormous respect for those three guys, both professionally and personally.
VL – Can you tell us a bit about how you guys run those workshops, and what has been the most rewarding part of it, on a personal level?
JG – We go out to an interesting location (this year it was a car factory), gather reference, then work in groups to produce graphic explanations. The atmosphere is very friendly, and completely inclusive. Anyone can sit and chat to us, exchange ideas, and make contacts that really last. It’s the United Nations of infographics. We’ve been told by many current graphics directors that the Show Don’t Tell workshop was a positive influence on their early careers. That is so good to hear.
VL – Among the common concerns we heard from this year’s Malofiej attendees — and almost all visual journalists, as far as we know — is the future of the news industry, and specially print publications. This is far from being a simple issue — and new —, but what’s your take on it, as someone who has followed the industry’s up and downs in the last decades?
JG – People were saying that print was dead (or dying) twenty years ago, and it’s still here. Of course, I don’t know the future, but I think magazines, for example, can find a business model that works for both print and online. Some niche magazines are doing well with a high cover price and unique, specialized content. Like being part of a club. That might be one answer.
I don’t think it’s about paper or digital, as much as it’s about quality content. People will pay for that.
VL – And even so, when you look at the attendees of this year’s Malofiej Summit, you see that infographic design is attracting more and more people from outside traditional journalism. How would you explain this rise in the interest of visual communication, at the same time newspapers and magazines struggle to survive?
JG – There has been a very, very long history of visual communication, so it’s always been available as a powerful aid to understanding. Now we have crazy amounts of data to decode, so it’s even more important. Many different disciplines are realizing that there is an opportunity to take this data and reach new audiences. It’s still early days for visualizing data, but it has an exciting future.
VL – Today, working as an independent designer, you probably face a completely new set of challenges, when compared to your last position in the publishing industry, right? But what about the perks of working outside the editorial environment?
JG – I miss the collaboration, and having so many ways to get input from good journalists. The research, the checking, the editorial insight. Many of the ideas for my graphics came from smart editors, and not from me. On the other hand, I have some greater control over the execution of the projects.
And I don’t miss long, meandering meetings where little was achieved.
VL – And what do you miss the most from the time before computers “invaded” newsrooms, and changed the industry forever?
JG – Infographics was a craft, with pens, pencils, ink, and paint. You needed a lot of equipment. Like ellipse templates, compasses, and rolls of film to make overlays that would show printers where to put color. You needed a good art supplier, so that you didn’t run out of materials near to your deadline. It’s hard to imagine a time with no computers, no internet. In many ways, people like me are dinosaurs.
Now it’s easier to edit and adapt infographics. Research is infinitely easier (although not necessarily better). Communication using project websites puts everyone, everywhere, in the loop. There are all kinds of cross-platform possibilities. This leads to a bigger question: Has this improved the quality of infographics? Yes, but it’s certainly a topic for a big discussion.
VL – We are all familiar with some of your most classic work, such as the “Transatlantic Highway“. How about more recent infographics, can you share something with us ?
JG – Eight by Eight (the football magazine) is an exciting project. Superb design (by Priest + Grace) and tons of illustration. Winning Magazine of the Year (in May) was a great moment for the team. And it was all done with very few resources, and really just some volunteers. It’s a throwback to another time for magazines. Large format, full of artwork. I’m so glad to be a part of it.
I recently worked on a project about the Colorado River for ProPublica with some super-talented people. Currently involved in a big National Geographic illustration/infographic which will be published later this year. Smaller corporate projects: Well, ask me about those over a gin and tonic!
VL – To close, John, if you could “magically” acquire some new work-related skill, what would it be, and why?
JG – I would like to understand more about the mechanics of interactives, or at least understand more about the process, so I can storyboard them more efficiently. In another life, I could be coding!
I’ll finish with a suggestion for people who’ve grown up in the digital age (and anyone else who wants to get in touch with low-tech tools). Pick up a pencil and try some rough sketches. Not to be an artist, but to free yourself from the digital world for five minutes, and see what happens…
VL – Thank you, John!
JG – Thank you.