Monica Ulmanu

Out of the Shell

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I was a little girl living in Bucharest, Romania, only a few years after the communist regime had collapsed and the press had been set free. One of my favourite things to do every single day was to read the sports newspaper. Perhaps not all of it, but the whole football section. I knew all the players, the rankings, how many points each team had, and who scored the most goals. An economist by profession, my father had been working as a football radio broadcaster and journalist since I could remember, and I loved showing him all the data I was gathering.

I was keeping a notebook with all the weekly results, photos and clipped analyses of my favourite team’s games. Proof of how much fun I was having with that notebook, I was also clipping, colouring and pasting in my football diary small drawings from the newspaper’s football pages. They were all infographics showing how the most spectacular goals of the week had been scored.

They were schematic and childish-looking by today’s standards — as if the hands of the illustrator had shaken when drawing the cartoonish figures and the arrows showing where the ball landed. I didn’t know at the time who was making them. I later found out that reporters would first draw a rough sketch from memory, then hand it out to someone from the desktop publishing section who would produce an enhanced version. Having visited the newsroom with my father, I can only assume now it was one of the older folks (everybody looks old when you are seven), smoking incessantly at his desk, and working alone most of the time.

I recalled that image in my mind much later, when I worked on one of my own football graphics showing how Wayne Rooney scored all his England goals on the way to beat Bobby Charlton’s record. I didn’t receive instructions from the sports desk, nor did I work alone. Instead, I co-created the concept and worked shoulder to shoulder with people who all had different skills and expertise, from data aggregation to coding.

In most newsrooms around the world, the guy working alone at his desk has been replaced by a team of visual journalists, and smoking is no longer allowed. But what we still need to work on is making sure that visuals are truly the product of collaboration. Often times, team work is still perceived as a process in which someone gives instructions, and someone else executes. Just like in my father’s newsroom all those years ago. Rather than merely executing editorial ideas, designers should be an active part of the editorial process and generate ideas themselves. Modern newsrooms that have moved in this direction are already reaping the rewards — and deservedly getting the big prizes at Malofiej. But has the industry as a whole made the transition toward more collaborative visuals?

Rather than merely executing editorial ideas, designers should be an active part of the editorial process and generate ideas themselves.

Often times, other desks have difficulty working with visual journalists because they simply don’t know what we actually do. Or what our role should be. In their defense, we are still learning ourselves how to work with colleagues who have a different skill set from us.

So this is what I’m aiming for: collaboration as a shared decision-making on a perfectly horizontal level. An inclusive process where we take turns in leading the project, in which all parties are involved from the start and have a say. Often in editorial settings the visual team is brought in when the story is already in the final stages of production. I’ve found this leads to design compromises and frustration. Without a shared understanding of the story we need to tell, our projects have half the impact they could have. Effective newsrooms that are successfully combining text and visuals are involving the graphics team from the get-go.

Our expertise in a wide variety of design tools or newly acquired skills may give us a plus of confidence and add the wow factor to the project. But they alone don’t necessarily make us better designers or better journalists. Working with others does. The days I get out of my shell and work with reporters and editors from across the newsroom, the days they disagree with me and challenge my thinking are the days that I remember most vividly. Those are the days I become a better visual journalist, and I want our future as a profession to hold more of them.

Think of it this way: Isn’t now the best time for us, visual journalists, to join other desks and work side-by-side with reporters and editors? We could pull best practices along the way and inspire each other. We could be more engaged in the workflow at all stages, not only the final ones. We could be more motivated and supportive of one another. It may seem harder and time-consuming, but in the end it may lead to what we all strive for: better storytelling.

Monica Ulmanu is Visual journalist of The Guardian (London, United Kingdom).

What do you think?