Fernando G. Baptista

The Quality and the Simplicity
of Good Graphics

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From my perspective, there has been a great evolution in infographics in these past 25 years. From at first being, in many cases, a service department which answered the need of newspapers for graphics to becoming departments with their own substance and journalistic character.

We graphics artists began proposing, investigating and creating graphics. For me this was one of the key to success of infographic teams. We relied on our autonomy and respect within the newsroom which is what allowed us to come up with the right choice for graphics. That the newsroom became more aware of graphic culture and trusted infographics more is something that took time, but which worked without a doubt, because it generated the need to publish graphics.

The transformation has been tremendous, not only with regard to the plastic/atheistic styles: computer, illustrations by hand, 3-D, diagrams, interactives, data visualization … but also, and more importantly, in the informative part.

The biggest leap was the arrival of the Internet in the newsroom, which brought with it access to a huge quantity of information; moving from using press agencies and books as references to being able to access image archives and databases of all types. This has made an enormous difference, although it also entails and brings with it the problem of veracity: how much of what we find on the Internet is reliable? Because of this I think that, imagining the future, the commitment to veracity is one of our greatest assets for maintaining our audience and for attracting new readers. I like to think that we will always have readers who are looking for media that is serious and of high quality as a source of information.

As I mentioned earlier, the Internet has helped a great deal; it supposes a qualitative leap forward in the access to information but at the same time it opened the door to free digital content. It came to have this culture of “not paying” for online content and, as a consequence of this, now it is hard to convince readers to pay for it. In a certain respect, what helped the journalistic profession so much, with its immediacy and technology, is killing it little by little. In many cases we all get by on short helpings of instant news, we have become impatient and although we spend hours and hours on the Internet, we spend very little time on reading an article. Have we lost the ability to concentrate? Maybe we have.

I am an optimist when I think about the future of infographics. It has always seemed to me the perfect medium for informing and now more than ever, now that we have even less time. Through graphics we can tell a story very quickly.

I think that the search for new ways of telling stories with graphics, in both print and digital, continues to evolve. Normally, I divide infographics in two large groups: diagrams and data visualization, although in many cases these are combined, with their consequent variations in print or digital formats.

If the information has to work at the same time in both platforms, doing this seriously in digital is a huge and laborious project.

It seems to me that graphic diagrams on paper are become more refined and cleaner, maturing thematically, becoming much more intelligent and surprising, resulting in graphics that are more sophisticated. For me, there continues to be something magical and special about print; this ability to make you stop and spend time with them, exploring them, that is something that is hard to do with digital.

If we think about how interactive graphics have changed in the last six years, it is something incredible. We have gone from having all sorts of animated objects and clicking to navigate to simply scrolling, which is much more austere and simple.

In my opinion, graphic diagrams in digital form will evolve toward simple, easy to navigate interactives or to video where new things are being experimented with and where everything is valid so long as it tells a story well. This part of video-infographic I find terribly interesting, a challenge between informing and surprising the reader, which is difficult to achieve today because readers receive so much visual stimulation that it becomes harder to surprise them.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I would say the print graphics, normally, do not have very interesting digital emulations. If you want to do something in this format, it becomes a new project in itself. If the information has to work at the same time in both platforms, doing this seriously in digital is a huge and laborious project. The graphics artist has gone from working mostly individually to working more in a team with programmers, web designers and video people. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that a graphics artist can be a one-man-band, capable of being journalist, designer, programmer, video producer….

I think we are living in the fashion of databases, with very good results, innovative concepts and which are done very well, but there are also some stylistic excesses, pretty but lacking an informative foundation, hard to read or lacking conclusions, forgetting that we create graphics for the readers, not for graphics artists. Possibly infographics of data visualization will become increasingly simple, in print as well as digital.

It seems to be that the future is in mobile telephone, since this the apparatus that we all use the most and in this tiny format we are forced to simplify. Curiously, it is on the small screen of our telephones where video works so well because the users get a great deal of information and they are not forced to navigate.

For me the future is in the quality and the simplicity of good graphics.

Fernando G. Baptista is a Senior Graphics Editor of National Geographic Magazine
(Washington DC, USA).

What do you think?