Steve Duenes

Then and Now, the Best Graphics are Clear Visual Evidence

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Any student of information graphics knows that good graphics have been around for much longer than 25 years, but my view of the evolution of the form since 1992 or 1993 goes something like this:

—For newspapers, print was dominant, and it stayed dominant longer than it should have.

—Early, celebrated graphics were often richly-illustrated and possibly more focused on artistic expression than on revealing important information.

—Whatever your opinion of Edward Tufte, his influence has been apparent throughout this period, and it remains a factor as journalists consider how to pare back clutter and speak directly to new audiences.

—On the other hand, Nigel Holmes has long made the case that levity makes information memorable, and I don’t think anyone has fully exploited this insight.

—Process diagrams remain an important foundation for many kinds of visual communication, especially breaking news coverage, but over the last 25 years, data visualization has become equally (or even more) important in journalistic graphics.

—Visualization hairballs as publishable graphics came and went, but their value remains as reporting tools.

—Expressionism had its moment, with whales and castles coming in for artistic treatments, and I suspect it will resurface as graphics thinking is applied to virtual reality.

—Rich interactivity and explorable graphics that stretch across huge monitors lost their momentum, but new platforms like VR and AR will likely bring them back.

—The vocabulary of visual forms expanded significantly as more journalists studied the history of the craft and realized that smart people have been doing this for more than a century. This expansion has generated greater visual literacy among sophisticated media consumers.

—Infographics structure, including the close relationship between words and images, became a formula for longform narrative articles and video-photo narratives.

—Some print charts were extremely simple 25 years ago, and now many of the best graphics must also be extremely simple as they land on social media or arrive via text message or exist as part of a dashboard.

The question isn’t whether everything has become an infographic but whether we can find graphics in places where they weren’t likely to be found 25 years ago.

I don’t think infographics transformed media and journalism in general. The bulk of journalism flowing from the newspaper tradition is still mostly made up of words. So the question isn’t whether everything has become an infographic but whether we can find graphics in places where they weren’t likely to be found 25 years ago.

Right now, you can find graphics that are complete, standalone stories. You can access graphics as real-time sources of insight as data flows in and is analyzed prior to instant publication. Graphics are now a load-bearing component of entire categories of journalism, from explanatory to investigative efforts. And one could argue that graphics — the ones that are obviously clear and accurate pieces of visual evidence — are essential in an environment where the truth is often shrugged off as someone’s point of view.

Looking ahead, it’s obvious that new, less-familiar platforms will become places where most of our readers find high-quality journalism (the phone now takes more than half), and some technology companies are betting that virtual and augmented reality will play an important role in the delivery of information, which make me think of something my boss at The New York Times has often said — that the design of an entire newspaper is really, “a giant infographic.”

He may become right.

Steve Duenes is the Assistant Masthead Editor of The New York Times (New York, USA).

What do you think?