I, my masterpiece

Jesús Gil Sáenz

Some time ago, a friend told me a story about three brothers he had met. I never met the brothers. I just listened to the story about these brothers and their crazy idea. They were very close to each other and to their parents. They had received a refined education in school and at home. Thanks to this, they developed a number of skills: languages, sports, music, cultural interests, ability to make friends… They were so proud of their parents, that the eldest brother had a crazy idea when the youngest reached adulthood. He had read something about classical sculptures and how to identify their authors. “Our parents had done a very good job” he said, “but it is a pity that we, their masterpieces, are not signed. Let’s solve it.” So he invited them to get tattooed the signature of their father and their mother on their foot insteps. And they did it.

Malofiej is about masterpieces. You can get surprised every year. When you think that the best graphic ever has been done, someone succeeds to overcome it: more accurate journalism, never drawn before issues, clever use of multimedia resources, clearer explanations, more efficient simpler ideas, finer renderings… Everyone aspires to such achievements. All of us wish their graphics to be judged as masterpieces. But what if the masterpieces are not only the creations, but their authors?

I have always liked the articles, interviews and conferences at Malofiej focused on authors. Most of all if the authors share their work processes to create outstanding visuals. I find it really useful to learn and improve. This paper focuses on authors from a different point of view – the personal achievement, the flourishing, the human masterpieces that we can become.

Maybe it is an unexpected issue for a Malofiej annual, because fulfillment is not specific to visual journalists but common to anyone with a job. To my mind, due to our multidisciplinary skills and the high level of excellence we aspire to, we are often exposed to frustration. I asked Chiqui Esteban about this. When he was hired by The Washington Post in 2016, he had worked on seven newsdesks before, in the United States and in Spain. In fact, we met at La Voz de Galicia: “When we talk about our jobs at Malofiej, we almost instantly default to our frustrations – how little editors care about graphics, how difficult is to work with limited resources, how overworked we are, how writers don’t take visual journalists seriously… These frustrations are very real and sometimes they happen even in the largest media. In fact some of my best work has come out of frustration and my effort to overcome it.”

Why do we create?

We cannot think of us authors and our achievement or frustration without acknowledging our motivations: Why do we create? I have chosen more than one hundred visual journalists among the participants from the past two Malofiej Summit editions, and I have asked them these questions: What drives you to work in visual journalism? Which motivations do you find to do graphics day by day? Below the results of my survey – I have left names and companies out.

Many answers assume the mission shared by any journalist: “to inform the audience,” but remark the power of graphics “for a better understanding of relevant topics.” Someone claims that this mission is carried out with passion: “I deeply believe that visualizing complex datasets or facts gives readers an easier understanding of a story.” So visuals appear as a key tool to really serve the audience: “Delivering important stories to the world is our duty. I believe that if we are successful at presenting information, those stories will be read more.” Even more: “We are able to tell a story that would otherwise be hidden within data/numbers.” Hidden truth is truth anyway: “Quality reporting has never been more important than in these polarized times. Populist movements are gaining momentum all over the world and working with data allows us to tell stories rooted in facts.”

Along with the common journalism mission – help the audience to better understand issues, some answers report a search for excellence. “It is curiosity driving me. To find the best form to visually communicate a theme that ideally is of personal interest.” That search always allows “the possibility of innovating in the ways of informing better” and is seen as a conquer: “It is a daily challenge to find aspects that no one else has covered through graphic and visual narratives. The challenge is too to create a unique informative piece before deadline.” Success is celebrated, of course: “Bringing order and design to complex information is a rewarding experience.” In case of failure, we have a new opportunity the next day: “Every day is different. Exciting. A feeling that you are making a difference. Pays the mortgage!” So daily training and practice is said to be the way to mastery because “no matter how good you are – You are defined by the quality of your latest work.”

«My current work consists in constructing reality: mine, the only one possible. It is not about what for several years now some artists call “discourse”, or what the world of politics has taken to labelling “narrative”. Reality is a cluster of small truths, such as sensations and thinking and doing, that together make up what life is. I don’t extract information to create a message of some distant reality, nor do I limit myself to just imagining it. I live the experience which comes out of the message»

The search for excellence is mixed with the thirst for knowledge every day in every project: “I constantly keep on learning, honing my skills or understanding better the world we live in.” It is interesting that some colleagues include the team that they work with – other artists, designers, and editors, as a source of energy and learning: “They offer different points of view and different approaches to visuals.” Strong beliefs are appraised: “What motivates me is working with a team of dedicated people determined to contribute ideas that might just make the world a better place for our kids to inherit.”

Finally, some answers put across the conviction of being in the right job: “I am looking around all the time for ways to explain things visually. After all these years, it is just the way I think. Perhaps I see the world as one very large infographic.” Two of our colleagues said they had caught the “news bug” and others to have the necessary skills: “The desire to express one’s thoughts through infographics is a kind of professional differentiation.” This belief drive to have fun in work: “I find it enriching to get general information closer to the audience.”

I think the following quote sums up my survey well: “What drives me? Curiosity – to find the insights and stories hidden within the data and then sharing this with others to help them understand more about the world. Creation – I like making things, especially if they also look beautiful. Learning – I never want to stop learning. I learn new technical or visual things with each new visual that I create.”

A grid of motivations

Our colleagues have shared a number of valuable motivations. However, since there are other possible reasons to work, I would like to share a complete motivation model. It may be useful to all of us, as a map to understand better our goals and orientate our careers to reach fulfillment.

Let’s begin with a bit of context. In the 20th Century, several researchers devoted an enormous effort to the study of motivation. However, no single theory has been universally accepted. There are four classical models that best explain the employee motives and needs: Maslow, McClelland, Alderfer, and Herzberg. Among them, the hierarchical description of needs proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 is paradig.


Maslow describes motivations from basic or lower needs, the so-called physiological ones, ascending to higher needs, associated with social activities: esteem-building, self-actualization, or constant self-improvement. This hierarchy is a continuum of needs: the lower needs have to be satisfied before higher needs can influence behavior. When the needs are satisfied, they cease to be motivators. Maybe Maslow’s model is so popular because it is most often displayed as a hierarchical pyramid. Easy to understand, easy to remember – the power of visuals. The early depiction of the pyramid had five levels. Later on, in 1970 and 1971, it was expanded to eight, including cognitive, esthetic and self-transcendent needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was a milestone. The research did not stop and still continues today. The model that I would like to share has been developed by professors Manuel Guillén, Ignacio Ferrero and W. Michael Hoffman in an article published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 2015 — “The Neglected Ethical and Spiritual Motivations in the Workplace” (128: 803).

I can validate their proposal because of my own experience in the newsroom of La Voz de Galicia – I recognize the whole mix of my motivations in their taxonomy. I also like their synthetic vision to integrate the main precedent models, their open mind to incorporate ethical and spiritual dimensions and their visual thinking to display the model in a grid.

Guillén, Ferrero and Hoffman take from Maslow the classification in lower and higher needs, but accept the flexibility of movement between needs, as introduced by David McClelland and Clayton Alderfer. At the same time, they agree with the differentiation between what Frederick Herzberg called extrinsic factors (doing something because you expect to receive another external thing) and intrinsic factors (doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable – it promises an internal reward).

Then, aiming to achieve a richer understanding of motivations, they take two steps forward to build their model. First, based on the Aristotelian tradition, they incorporate the “ethical” dimension of human beings and explicitly consider the dimension of “giving.” Second, they include spirituality and religion as human motivations because they may be present in some individuals.

If Maslow’s model was depicted as a pyramid, the one by Guillén, Ferrero and Hoffman is designed in a grid – the power of visuals again. The rows of this grid do not display human lower and higher needs but levels that refer to four basic dimensions of human life and therefore to four anthropological dimensions that may be considered in any attempt to explain flourishing in the workplace. These are harmonious with the Aristotelian concept of human goods:

The eight-stage Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
MAPS. Three maps. Each with a unique aesthetic, according to the subject they are dealing with.

— Practical level, related to the useful goods, those intended for the sake of something else.

— Psycho-affective level, related to the pleasant goods, those chosen for their own sake because they are nice, enjoyable, fun.

— Moral level, related to the moral goods, to everything that is right and worthy of cultivation, chosen for its own sake too.

— Spiritual level, related to the transcendental or spiritual goods.

The columns of the grid display the four motivations. They regard the elemental kinds of human relationships – with oneself, with others, and with the Other:

— Extrinsic motives, which refer to external benefits, utility, or advantage. They can be understood in terms of receiving.

— Intrinsic motives, which refer to something given internally, while the agent is acting or doing something, which causes them pleasure or satisfaction. They can be understood in terms of acquiring.

— Transitive motives, which point outside the agent and can be understood in terms of giving.

— Religious motives, which refer, for those who believe in the Divinity, to a plausible relationship with God. They can be understood in terms of giving to one Another. Although atheism does not fit within this kind of motivation, even atheists would agree that this is a motive for many.

As a result, we have a taxonomy of sixteen plausible motivations. In the practical level, related to useful goods, we find these motives:

— Support: to receive the fair profits or earnings, to enjoy healthy working conditions, etc.

— Achievement: to acquire new competences, to learn or improve skills, etc.

— Service: to give help or assistance, to collaborate within the team and with colleagues, etc.

— Submission: to be useful to God, to cooperate with Him, to obey His will. This is a proper attitude for someone who believes in God’s power and authority, and can be linked to one’s job, for example, if that is seen as a way of taking care of Creation.

In the psycho-affective level, related to pleasant goods, we find these motives:

— Relatedness: to receive esteem from colleagues, to be accepted, etc.

— Satisfaction: to acquire fulfillment with one’s work, to have fun in one’s job, etc.

— Pleasantness: first of all, when giving help or collaborating, to do it with affection and kindness; then, to help others to satisfy their needs for affection.

— Gratitude: to give affection to God, who is not perceived as the creator, the almighty God, but also the One who (in the Christian tradition) wants to be called Father. The movement of the human heart before God as Father is one of piety, appreciation, reparation, gratitude, and thanksgiving.

In the moral level, related to moral goods, we find these motives:

— Respect: to receive respect, appropriate recognition, moral reputation, approval, or legitimacy from others.

— Flourishing: to acquire an internal ability or disposition that results from our work (what Aristotle would call a moral virtue). This is the trait of character that enables a person to achieve human flourishing, a form of self-actualization, excellence, or well-being.

— Benevolence: to give that which is good to another. Benevolence comes from Latin bene-volere, willing the good. It is a kind of love for others.

— Worship: to give God what he justly deserves, which in fact is reverence, veneration, adoration, or worship.

In the spiritual level, related to spiritual goods, we find these motives:

— Gifts: if open to transcendence, to receive an external spiritual good or grace, something holy, a spiritual gift or support, such as wisdom, joy, or peace of spirit.

— Holiness: to acquire an internal spiritual improvement that results from our work, to increase the spirituality or blessedness (sanctity for a Christian believer), etc. This motivation does not demand the recognition of the existence of a Divinity, but is open to such a presence.

— Charity: to share the spiritual good with others, to share holiness. In the Christian tradition, this kind of motivation has to do with one of the meanings of charity, or agape, which upholds and purifies human benevolence.

— Glorify: a desire to give the spiritual good to the One who is Himself the Spirit. Human beings are unique in this possibility of voluntarily giving glory to the One who is the Glory itself, the One who, for those who believe in God, deserves praise, tribute, and honor. To do everything for the glory of God, to glorify Him, can be described then as the noblest human motivation of a religious person, giving back spiritual love to the One considered as Love itself.

Although all sixteen motivations can be considered in a hierarchical order, they are complementary and can be achieved simultaneously, or at least not always sequentially. In fact, all of them can occur in the same person, at the same time, and presumably in the same action, although probably in different proportions, or perhaps some of them can not occur at all.

I shared the framework with Fernando G. Baptista, and I asked him about the mix of motivations: “Evolution throughout life is important. When I started my career at El Correo, my motivation was to learn how to do infographics. I had no idea. I liked graphics, I had drawing skills, but I lacked the bases to tell stories visually. My colleagues taught me these bases. I was mainly receiving and acquiring – speaking with terms from the model. Later on my motivation in El Correo was to apply my artistic talents to infographics: how to introduce other techniques in a time when almost everything was done by computer. It was time to give – with terms from the model again. Finally when I arrived at National Geographic my motivation changed. Here I had time and resources, but also the pressure of millions of readers with a strong emotional link with the magazine. I tried to improve my graphics to reach the highest standards of National Geographic. It was not easy. It cost me many hours of work and stress. I think that the desire to innovate and experiment with new techniques made my work evolve both on paper and digitally. So I continue to learn and improve – to receive and acquire, while I keep on contributing my experience and skills to serve our readers – to give.”

Conclusion: What drives me?

The model by Guillén, Ferrero and Hoffman provides an understanding of the diversity of motives and needs, as well as their interrelationship. What can we do with it? I asked Karin Schwandt, who spoke in the 26th Infographics World Summit about sacrificing everything in search of excellence: “For over a decade, I was running a successful infographics agency. I had plenty of work, my clients were happy, my team was happy, and I was making good profits. Yet, I experienced less and less satisfaction. It was only after I started to understand what really drives me that I found out what I was missing. As soon as I had a clear idea about my motives, I was able to make a drastic decision: I decided to quit my agency. Now, a few years later, I feel I can flourish again. I think this model can be helpful to anyone who wants to investigate their motives. What worked for me, might work for others: understanding what drives you enables you to make decisions that allow you to grow.”

Also Guillén, Ferrero and Hoffman include among their conclusions an invitation to take their model as a practical self-evaluation tool: “Each person can easily identify his or her motivations at work by using the model for personal reflection. Human flourishing requires a frequent examination of individual motives of conduct in order to develop the noblest potentialities of each. The workplace is indeed the ‘place’ where motivations (material, psychological, moral, and spiritual), through actions, have the ability to transform ‘work’ into a noble human activity, even the most dreary task. This shift starts with the acknowledgment that employees do not bring only their bodies and minds to work but also their hearts, souls, creativity, talents, and unique spirits.”

And they bring all that – bodies, minds, hearts, souls, creativity, talents, and unique spirits, in the hope of becoming the glorious masterpieces that they can be.

However, I do see that there has been a guiding logical thread that has led me from there to here. In the mid-1990s I renounced —at least see-mingly— those vectors that were monopolising info graphics. This radical formal change was a shock within the profession, as well as for the readers. Without a doubt, I felt a desire to go back to using hand-drawn illustration and reducing the role of the computer to what it does best: editing text and images. But, in truth, this was not a renunciation. Instead it was the manifestation of a concept that aimed to broaden the possibilities of infographics as a communicative tool. Known in professio-nal circles as the “Clarín style”, from the daily newspaper where most of these pieces were published, it was, in reality, a non-style. It was a concept that sought to anticipate and expand the information about what was be-ing looked at and to give form to the content. This concept is often called “aesthetics as ethics”.

Back in those days, like today, in any geographic latitude or altitude, apart from the profile of the reader, of the media company or the subject matter being dealt with, the illustrations included in infographics had an aesthe-tic that was tame, sterile, and deliberately invisible. This made sense: the important thing in an infographic was substance, not the form. But renoun-cing aesthetics means renouncing one of the most powerful channels of communication. And, on the other hand, it’s a fool’s task: it is not possible to avoid aesthetics. All aesthetics communicates. Science does so too: coldly, aseptically, digitally, inhumanly. In essence, the “non-style” imple-mented at Clarín consisted in grasping that, unfortunately, aesthetics are a fundamental part of infographics that cannot be dispensed with. The best that we can do is harness them by enhancing them with content.

This idea can be clearly understood by looking at three maps published between 1996 and 1997: La Barcelona de Antoni Gaudí (Antoni Gaudí’s Barcelona), a map about the Rwandan genocide and Miami top. These three maps had the same mission and I believe that they achieved it. The goal was to construct a cartography of a physical space about which we explain something specific. But each of these maps was created using a certain method depending upon the subject. La Barcelona de Antoni Gaudí was created using what is known as trencadis, a technique that the famous architect used for adding decoration to his buildings. It involves using broken, ruined tiles to create forms. The resulting map is a work that is luminous, up-beat, physical. If the reader is already familiar with Gaudí, the imagery anticipates the text. If the reader has no prior knowledge of his style and methods, the map still fulfils its function and, here, instead of anticipating the written information, it amplifies it. It provides aesthetic information which, as such, would be impossible to show in any other way. More or less explicitly, something similar happens with the maps of Rwan-da and Miami. Clearly, in these pieces the presence of the author is more pronounced than it would be in a map created according to a style guide. The reader also has more space for reading.


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