Six questions with… Nigel Holmes

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 gave each interviewee a selection of questions from which to choose six to respond. This latest interview is with the legendary Nigel Holmes. Thank you, Nigel!

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 | (For clarification all my answers come from the perspective of journalism/art, rather than data analysis – infographics rather than data visualization – and mostly from print). After 3 years at Hull art school, I went to the Royal College of Art in 1963. The best part of my time at the RCA was not the classes there, but doing summer internships at the Sunday Times Magazine with Brian Haynes, the art director, who was busily breaking down the wall between art (pictures) and edit (words). He was way ahead of his time in that respect—there’s still a wall (albeit less rigid) in most magazines and newspapers, even today. I was studying to be an illustrator, but Brian told me I wasn’t a very good one. He encouraged me to use whatever illustration skills I had to explain things to people. Although it wasn’t called information graphics (or anything) then, that’s when I started in the field, and i’ve never done anything else. Thanks Brian!

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 | (I’m allowing Nigel more to share than one guiding principle. Why? Because its Nigel Holmes and he’s earned the right to write his own rules round here!) Here’s a three part answer:

(a) When making statistical charts, I ask: What would Otto and Gerd do? (WWO&GD?…Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz. Both long dead now, but I’m on a first name basis with them!) I respect their mantra as far as possible: make charts statistically accountable, but with pictures. In other words, make it possible to SEE the subject of the chart by recognizing the meaning of pictorial icons (rows of little people, or houses or dollars) and being able to COUNT those icons. Neurath (1882-1945) was an early adviser against increasing the size of an icon (a person for example, representing population) to show a comparative increase in the population from a previous, smaller icon.

(b) Start with black and white, and only introduce color when it has relevant meaning.

(c) In general, use color very sparingly.

Q3 | If you had the time and resources (perhaps more skills, new tools) to revisit one project from your past and make improvements to certain features, which project would it be and what would you change?

A3 | There are too many examples from Time Magazine to pick just one. However, I will say I believe that those over-illustrated examples were right for their times (1977-c.1990), and they helped a lot of readers to become engaged with the sometimes dry financial info, and to better understand the (sometimes dry!) articles they accompanied. What would I change? Then: nothing. Now: less illustration. Because readers are more sophisticated, and I don’t need to try so hard to attract their attention.

Q4 | One of the trademarks of your work is your ability to incorporate fun into your infographic designs. This of course helps to generate strong appeal amongst those viewing the work. How do you determine the sweet-spot, when is enough, enough and not too much? What has experience taught you to be able to safeguard against such ideas becoming potentially overly indulgent or gimmicky?

A4 | Early on I was quite severely criticised in US academic circles. (But strangely, never in England where I was actually doing the same kind of stuff for the Radio Times as later appeared in Time.) Trouble was, readers loved it, which meant the editors loved it too. I got fan mail! Sometimes I did overdo the imagery, but in all the charts the data/numbers from the map and chart department’s researchers was always solid. My idea was to attract readers, true, but then to very quickly deliver the facts/numbers.

A confession: sometimes I was thinking of an image first; and that’s the wrong way round, of course. The data must come first. However, I still firmly believe in the power of pictures to convey information (as opposed to completely neutral, abstract shapes). The danger is that one can easily slip into editorialising, into having an opinion about the data…but I can argue that such an approach is also acceptable in certain situations. It depends on the audience. And sometimes “fun” is just not right: death, abortion, guns, etc. Play those straight! (and Play is the wrong word!)

Q5 | What are the main characteristics of infographic/visualisation work you like (done by others)? Particularly, what traits of ‘excellence’ might you see (given your experience and empathy about the challenges with this type of design) that more novice viewers would possibly under appreciate?

A5 | Clean, simple overall design; an ability to read the information/data; clear labelling of the elements. A natural hierarchy of information, starting with a headline/title, followed by a brief description (subheading); logical left-to-right, top-to-bottom numbering in how-to-do-it, or how-it-happened infographics. Color only used to inform.

Q6 | Beyond the world of infographics/visualisation what other disciplines/subject areas/hobbies/interests do you feel introduce valuable new ingredients and inspire ongoing refinement of your techniques?

A6 | Many different thoughts about this:

Look at how other designers solve visual problems (but don’t copy the look of their solutions).

Look at art to see how great painters use space, and oragnize the elements of their pictures.

Look back at the history of infographics. It’s all been done before, and usually by hand!

Draw something with a pencil (or pen…but NOT a computer!) Sketch often: the cat asleep. The view from the bus. The bus.

Personally, I listen to music—mostly jazz—a lot. There are parallels between making music and making art (and I know that’s not a new idea). Differentiating between “voices”—in music that’s instruments, in infographics, it’s graph lines or other graphic marks, or just colors — so that the various voices can be heard as one, or separate from one another, while contributing to the whole sound (in music) or image (infographics). Listening to just the bass, or the drums, or the piano in a jazz trio opens up ways of thinking about how 3 different elements of a data- or infographic might mesh together or be intentionally held apart.