Six questions with… Amanda Hobbs

In order to sprinkle some star dust into the contents of my book I’ve been doing a few interviews with various professionals from data visualisation and related fields. These people span the spectrum of industries, backgrounds, roles and perspectives. I’ve only scratched the surface with those I have interviewed so far, there’s a long wish list of other people who I haven’t approached yet but will be doing so. My aim is to publish a new interview each week through to the publication of my book around April/May 2016 so look out for updates!

I gave each interviewee a selection of questions from which to choose six to respond. This latest interview is with Amanda Hobbs, formerly an Art Research Editor at National Geographic, now an independent researcher, writer, and visual content editor. Thank you, Amanda!

Q1 | What was your entry point into the field: From what education/career background did you transition into the world of data visualisation/infographics?

A1 | Prior to becoming the Art Research Editor at National Geographic magazine, I earned my BA/MA in History and worked for an historic preservation firm, an art museum, and a fine art gallery.

Though some may wonder how I ended up working in visual journalism, to me it always seemed like a natural extension of my professional and academic training. Storytelling, whether via words on a page, information graphics, data visualizations, museum exhibitions, or any other form of media, is about conveying a narrative to your chosen audience. In order to tell that story you must research, interpret, synthesize, and present large amounts of information in a responsible, yet engaging way. Over the years I’ve fulfilled various different professional roles, but all had certain key elements in common: research, writing, art, and communicating with the public. And all have benefitted from my training as an historian.

Q2 | We are all influenced by different principles, formed through our education, experience and/or exposure to others in the field – if you had to pick one guiding principle that is uppermost in your thoughts as you work on a visualisation or infographic, what would it be?

A2 | As a researcher: be thorough, and be organized. I’m fond of saying that the information you collect is only as good as your method of organizing it. In other words, as a researcher you must be thorough, but you must also be meticulously organized if you want all of that research to make sense. As an information designer: strive for clarity, not simplicity. It’s easy to “dumb something down,” but extremely difficult to provide clarity while maintaining complexity.

Q3 | How do you mitigate the risk of drifting towards content creep (eg. trying to include more dimensions of a story or analysis than is necessary) and/or feature creep (eg. too many functions of interactivity)?

A3 | This is highly dependent on the subject matter and the proposed goal of the infographic/data viz. In essence: too little information/interpretation, and your graphic has no meaning; too much, and you cloud its understanding. Striking that balance is what all visual journalists are constantly striving to do.

Q4 | Can you describe what role research plays in the process of creating a data visualisation/infographic and why it is so important? What capabilities make a good researcher in this context?

A4 | Research is key. Data, without interpretation, is just a jumble of words and numbers – out of context and devoid of meaning. If done well, research not only provides a solid foundation upon which to build your graphic/visualization, but also acts as a source of inspiration and a guidebook for creativity. A good researcher must be a team player with the ability to think critically, analytically, and creatively. They should be a preemptory problem solver, identifying potential pitfalls and providing various roadmaps for overcoming them. In short, their inclusion should amplify, not restrain, the talents of others.

SIDE NOTE: In my career, I’ve met many people who view the role of researcher as an antiquated, academic profession, or even worse, a glorified fact-checker who delights in pointing out the deficiencies of others. Nothing could be further than the truth! Most often, when I begin a project I have no more than a basic description of what the story will be about. Clients enlist my help because they want to know what the possibilities are and what sorts of graphics they should pursue. In order to do my job, and do it well, I have to provide them with research, but also with ideas of what to do with that research. Hardly the realm of a “fact checker.”

Q5 | When you have worked on larger projects (complex, large times, long durations) how much does planning and project management play a role or do you find that creative freedom tends to dominate most workflows?

A5 | Planning and project management are essential when working on large projects with long timeframes, and good project management should foster creative freedom, rather than constrain it. Of course, this all depends on your definition of freedom. If you’d like to be able to change the focus, design, and implementation of a graphic at any point in the development process as an exercise in “freedom” . . . well, that will definitely have an effect on your deadlines, and your future work prospects.

Q6 | Do you have some advice on what helps you demonstrate such a strong capability to take complex and/or complicated subject matters and make them accessible and interesting to your audience? Linked to this, how do judge the sweet spot of accessibility – not oversimplified or dumbed-down but still understandable to non-specialists?

A6 | I hate the word “simplify.” In many ways, as a researcher, it is the bane of my existence. I much prefer “explain,” “clarify,” or “synthesize.” If you take the complexity out of a topic, you degrade its existence and malign its importance. Words are not your enemy. Complex thoughts are not your enemy. Confusion is. Don’t confuse your audience. Don’t talk down to them, don’t mislead them, and certainly don’t lie to them.

But I digress… So, how do you explain complex topics? First, you have to understand it yourself. If you don’t, talk to someone who does (i.e. a researcher, scientist, or expert in the field). Ask them how they break it down and explain it to individuals who don’t have a background in the subject matter. Second, try explaining it (in your own words or sketches) to someone else. If you can’t, go back to step one. If you can, but afterwards they have questions, then talk to them about their confusion. What elements could you add/change that would address their questions and help foster understanding? Third, show your newly developed graphic or visualization to a specialist in the field. Ask them if it is an accurate interpretation – something, in effect, that they could see themselves using to explain their work to others. If they think it’s an oversimplification, ask why. There could be many reasons for this: the size of the graphic is too small, there’s not enough room for explanatory text, it would be better to have 2 graphics (or 3 or 4).

SIDE NOTE: If you’re working on a story that has been reported on in the past, you could always discuss that previous coverage with an expert in the field – what do they think could had been done better? Explaining complex topics to non-specialists is a challenge. It’s also probably the number one reason why people hire a researcher (like me) to help them develop information graphics and data visualizations. Every topic is different, and requires a different approach.