Kat Downs Mulder

Graphics explorer

interview by javier errea

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She has seen the arrival of Jeff Bezos and Martin Baron. The word “fear” is not in her vocabulary and she has a boundless enthusiasm for everything new. Only 32 years old, she has recently become a mother for the second time and has made the Graphics Department at The Washington Post, which she leads, into one of the best in the world.

Kat has a girlish face, but, to be sure, not like a goody two-shoes but like one of those kids who have made their share of mischief yet know how flash a smile that can win people over. You only need to see her in the photos from her family albums (and even more so in current photos): she is always there in the midst of the action. Being the youngest of seven sisters is not an irrelevant piece of data in her still short but brilliant professional biography; just the opposite: it helps explain a great many things. She, who works all the time with statistics, knows this well.

The Washington Post is the newspaper of Katherine Graham, of Ben Bradlee, of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and now of Jeff Bezos and Martin Baron. Donald Trump, the new president of the United States, has ordered a crusade against media that dare to question his policies and methods, The Post among them. But this does not seem to intimidate this 32-year-old woman who for the past four has led her graphics department, truly putting it on the map. And neither did the forests, rivers or lakes that surround Franklin, a small city in western North Carolina where she was born, intimidate her. “Just be home before dark,” her mom would say. That was the only limitation. Having been told that, Kat would get on her bike in the morning and would be gone until evening; with friends or on her own.

For Kat Downs life was, and is, pure exploration. There is no fear or excuse that that can sway her. It is true, she admits, that when she was offered the job as director of graphics at The Washington Post at only 28 years old, she felt a bit weak in the knees, and no wonder. “At the time it felt very much like a leap and I was worried about failing.” But she accepted the challenge. And here she is. “Ultimately, you just need determination and you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable; knowing you can’t possibly know everything and admitting you have to learn and then embracing that chance to learn and really going after it. Those are not characteristics of ‘young people’ (in fact young people may be more resistant to acknowledging they don’t have answers because they are still trying to prove themselves) but rather character traits of lifelong learners, who can be any age.”

Downs defines herself as “pretty no-nonsense, outgoing and adventurous.” She loves spontaneity, “I find it really fun.” She is one to constantly fire off ideas and debate them out loud. “A word that’s been used to describe me many times is ‘relentless’ —if there’s something I want to do, I will figure out a way to do it. I’m pretty determined.” Communicator, designer, programmer, as she lists in that order on her blog, today she works in this fascinating territory “where technology and storytelling intersect.” And the best thing is that she is comfortable walking the edge, a volunteer scout on the advance patrol, managing a multi-disciplinary team made up of 25 people who never stop talking and questioning.

At home in Franklin, there were people and noise at all times. As Kat says: “Since my family was so big, we were expected to do a lot for ourselves and to be very independent. I learned how to get along with all different kinds of people and deal with a lot of noise, chaos and different opinions. My favorite thing about being the youngest (I’m five and a half years younger than my closest sister!) was that I was able to watch and learn from my older sisters’ experiences. We were all so different – we had different interests, habits and ways of doing things as well as different school experiences and groups of friends. A fun fact is that every one of my sisters has a different profession (a lawyer, an accountant, a nutritionist, a former pharmaceutical sales rep now stay-at-home mom, another who is a GIS analyst/cartographer for city government, a nurse, and me.” The din that Kat Downs heard at home is the same one alive in the world today, especially in the media world, which is so disordered and unstable. A perfect place, she believes, to keep on experimenting. “‘Only boring people get bored’ is something my mom would say that always stayed with me. Any time I told her I was bored, she would say that to me and tell me to go find something to do. There is always something interesting to learn or do, and if you don’t see it, you just have to shift your perspective and get creative. You can apply that type of thinking to journalism and to design: If this feels rote, dull or lacking, how can we push ourselves? How can we make it interesting? ”

The daughter of a recently retired judge and a stay-at-home mom who later worked as a teacher, a waitress and a researcher at Duke University, Kat Downs was a brilliant student. She devoured books. When she found a book she liked, she would stay up all night reading it; literally. “I stayed up all night for two or three weeks reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. My mom always told me that books are a way to travel the world and to go back in time.” She is still an inveterate reader; two or three books a month, some thirty per year, and above all, fiction. The most recent: Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Carlos Ruiz Zafón of Spain…), although she is increasingly drawn to fantasy and essays: poverty, racism, international politics. “Because the world we’re living in is so complex and I want to understand it in order to cover it better. I worry most about the inability to find common ground.”

She is active on Goodreads (www.goodreads.com), where she shares which books she has read, commenting on them and rating them. Goodreads is also a way of reminding herself if a long time has gone by without her having read anything or if she has stumbled on a book but has not yet managed to read it. “I’m definitely a little bit of a freak when it comes to books. I’m not stats-obsessed in any other area of my life…. For me, reading is relaxing and entertaining. Often, when I hear about a situation in real life, I can identify with it through something I read in a book. I think reading helps you develop your empathy —to see how the world might look to others, in different situations. It helps you to practice gratefulness and remember that the human experience can be so different depending on your circumstances, place and time, and there are many ways to see the same situation. I think that awareness helps you be a better people manager.”

As a girl, Kat was obsessed with science. So much so that in elementary school she wanted to be a geneticist, a zoologist or an astronaut. She showed off her explorer’s instinct, asking questions. “I loved asking questions and then trying to find answers, and I loved figuring out how to solve hard problems —that curiosity is something that still drives me today.” But she was not content with studying and reading, she also played all kinds of sports: soccer, softball, swimming, running, volleyball, gymnastics, ballet, basketball…. “I really enjoyed being part of a team. I enjoy working with others. I like to hear ideas from others and to get feedback on my own ideas. I don’t hold on to grudges or mistakes —my philosophy is that you learn from mistakes and they make you better, but you shouldn’t fixate on the past or you won’t be able to move forward. And I like to have fun —humor is big for me, in life and on the job!”

Kat Downs does not believe she has great artistic talent, and this despite taking several art classes and even winning a prize in a high school art competition. So she never imagined that one day she would call herself a designer. But she admits that her grandmother and mother passed on to her a deep creative strand. In the broadest sense of the word. “My grandmother (my mom’s mom) was a great seamstress and so is my mom, so I learned how to sew as a young child. And not just sewing, but all kinds of arts and crafts, creating my own stationery and building things like dolls’ houses and tree forts.” At twelve, she got started in HTML and built her first web pages. “I had a few personal websites, including one that was a tribute site to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I taught myself how to design and build simple sites. After a couple of years, I sort of forgot about it and moved on, but I’m sure that was the start of me being a programmer.”

In high school she joined the school newspaper as photographic editor. She also worked as a reporter and wrote editorials. “That was one of my first experiences leading people and getting them excited about a project I helped to conceive and execute.” It was, above all, her first point of contact with journalism. There were no known journalistic antecedents in her family, apart from her father reading The Asheville Citizen-Times, The Franklin Press and USA Today, and her mother subscribing to Time. Kat Downs ended up catching the journalism bug. “It was in high school that I got more interested in writing and storytelling and started to consider journalism as a profession. It is kind of cool that I ended up coming back to science/engineering through the programming aspect of my job and have been able to combine that with the storytelling and art interests I have”.

Married to an attorney, Kat Downs has recently given birth to a second child, this time a boy. Margot, the eldest, is two years old. The feminine saga continues. And, what is more, on her team of infographers there is an abundance of women. I asked her if this was by coincidence or a conscious decision. “I believe that diversity in the team is critical. That diversity can take many forms — not just race, age, experience (years and type), gender, religion —but also the work styles and interests of the folks in the group. My ideal team has great cohesion and focus and that comes from a diversity of thought, approach, and respect for what others in the group contribute —and an understanding that you can learn from and be supported by the knowledge of your teammates. I think women are a critical part of that. They’re underrepresented across the graphics and visual journalism world due to a number of factors. I think we need to look harder for diverse talent (women included) and encourage it and grow it, and give opportunities for young talent to impress us. That means mentoring, coaching, supporting and looking for talent in places that aren’t so obvious.”

At the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Kat focused on photojournalism and, above all, on the multimedia universe. I asked her at what point infographics came into the picture. “I liked to write, but I didn’t want to be a traditional reporter,” she replied. “I found the artistic aspects of visual journalism (photo stories, video stories and multimedia projects, including interactive infographics) really fascinating… the narrative formats, what is known as storytelling and technology. When I discovered I could do all of those things (Design, Storytelling and Programming), it was a perfect fit!” She was given an internship at USA Today to create interactive graphics. She not only loved the experience, but saw a clear professional opportunity. With this hope, she sent her résumé to more than fifty companies. At first, there were no replies. She had to work for a few months as a photographer for a public relations agency. Finally, she got a call from The Baltimore Sun, where she was offered a position as a web producer. She stayed in Baltimore for less than two years, from November 2006 to March 2008. From there she jumped directly to The Post. At The Post she has been a designer, an editor of innovation in graphics, an editor of interactive projects, deputy director of infographics and, since 2013, head of the department. In these years she has done nearly every job. “Graphics, but also video, photography, programming, site design, logos, illustration. I was a general-purpose designer and programmer and worked on many types of projects. I really enjoyed that variety. When washingtonpost.com (the website) merged with The Washington Post (the newspaper), a few folks from my team went to the digital design group and I, along with one other colleague, went to the graphics group. That’s when my focus on graphics really started. Larry Nista was my manager, then Hannah Fairfield. During that time, I focused almost all my time on creating interactive maps and visualizations. After a few years of that I broadened back out (when I got the Interactive Projects Editor role) and did some more work in motion graphics, video and photo, as well as graphics. When I went back to the Graphics team to become Deputy Graphics Director I took that portfolio with me. To this day my team still does a lot of projects that involve photography and video —other kinds of visual storytelling, not only traditional infographics. I think an awareness of the various kinds of visual storytelling really helps in imagining the possibilities for a story idea. Otherwise you are defaulting to charts or maps all the time, and that is not always the best way to approach a data story. Some of the most surprising and delightful visual stories are those that challenge our assumption about what kind of visualization we should see.”

Music & Cities

Favorite musicians: “The Avett Brothers, The Strokes, Adele, RATATAT, but to be honest, I have two kids under two right now, so I haven’t been listening to specific bands as much as I used to.”

Kinds of music: “I LOVE POP MUSIC! I mostly go to playlists on Google Play like Blogged 50 or Today’s Biggest Hits. I listen to either pop, indie rock or folk rock when I work, in the car or at home”.

A city: “Berlin. It’s vibrant and raw. I’ve been three times and each time I discovered something different. It’s a city where history feels alive around you. You feel past and present collide.”

A monument: “The Sagrada Familia is maybe the most beautiful man-made place I’ve seen in my life. I love the way the hall feels like a forest, where naturalism and spiritualism and religion all come together. The colors in the glass and the way they shine through as the light comes in was just mesmerizing. I loved all the Gaudi architecture around the city and the color, the sound, the smells, the food —Barcelona is one of a kind.”

A culture: “India is probably the most culturally diverse place I’ve been. Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia are also amazing.”

The Graphics Department at The Washington Post has developed amazingly in recent years, winning international recognition. In 2016, the National Press Foundation gave awards to the newspaper for two of its projects: a database that tallied and mapped all fatal shootings by police officers across the United States and, above all, The Waypoint (http://wapo.st/waypoint), which shows the struggles of immigrants arriving at the Greek island of Lesbos. In her blog Kat Downs explains the full details of the conceptual and developmental process of this latter project (http://www.katdowns.com/?p=1283). The development of the department can also be explained within the context of the arrival of Jeff Bezos as owner of The Post and the Copernican revolution that the newspaper has made in its journalistic strategy. “The newsroom has changed a lot since I joined it nine years ago. When I joined, the website and the newspaper were separate entities and we didn’t have a mobile site or apps. After Bezos bought The Post in 2013, we had a total strategy shift to focus on national growth, so that has been a major change. Bezos’s ownership has had an impact primarily in the strategy shift to a national publication vs. local. His ownership has also really changed folks’ minds about the fact that we are also a technology company (and a product-focused culture) —and that means visuals and dev skills get more appreciation and respect from other journalists and folks in the organization. We created a lot of new lines of coverage and hired lots and lots of people. Those hires really helped to catalyze the culture shift in the newsroom —to get people thinking of themselves as journalists first— without focusing exclusively on a certain medium (i.e., print). Our journalists now are working across so many media (web, mobile, print, social media, TV, radio, podcasts, emerging platforms like Alexa). Since 2013, the critical thing is that they focus on the stories first and then figure out how to make them the best and most meaningful stories on those different platforms. In my team specifically, we have evolved a lot. The types of graphics we do have changed —we do far fewer pieces that complement “print stories” and focus on high-impact visuals-driven stories— stories that NEED visuals to be understood, or that use visuals as a vital element of understanding within the narrative. We have a much more diverse skillset within the team, with folks from many disciplines. When I started years ago the majority of the team was artists, a few reporters and then a couple of developers (myself included). Now we are much more balanced, with more people who have compound skillsets (i.e., art + development, reporting + programming).”

As Spaniard Samuel Granados previously explained in the Malofiej 23 book, the Graphics Department of The Washington Post is structured in three teams: infographics (illustration, cartography, animation, diagrammatic or explanatory graphics, etc.), data (databases, APIs, apps, tools development and templates), and new narratives (augmented reality, virtual reality). The teams are not fixed but broadly worked together on multiple projects, but they do aim for clear specializations in each one of these areas. One of the great achievements of Kat Downs’ team has been creating a simple graphics production tools for reporters and editors with the goal that they become more and more autonomous. “The idea is to simplify the actual creation of graphics so we can focus on the concepts, ideas and information WITHIN the graphics themselves. The beauty of putting tools like Chartable or any software for making basic graphics in the hands of the reporters is that then they have responsibility for the work. And that feedback loop will make them better decision makers over time, in a way it wouldn’t if they just popped in a request to my team and got a chart back. By design, it is very difficult to make “bad” charts with the tools we’ve built for the newsroom. So really the worst that can happen is that the chart isn’t very helpful or useful, i.e., it states the obvious. And the Graphics team regains all that time that would’ve been spent on those easy charts and we can put that energy toward more impactful work. I have found that people like to be empowered, they like to be trusted. Our reporters at The Post are some of the best in the business and we train them in best practices for charts and coach them when they attempt new things with the tool…. It’s a two street. If we want to do more reporting (traditionally “reporter territory”) we need to get comfortable with other folks coming into what has traditionally been our turf (making simple charts and maps), so no one has to ‘lose’, instead, everyone wins.”

I ask Kat Downs about the fact that in recent years newsrooms at daily papers have been taking on tasks that in the past belonged more to production departments and that perhaps this might negatively affect the quality of the content since they have to split their focus, or said another way, that the technological advances may be hiding the negative side. She refutes this vehemently. “I think the more seamless and intuitive the technology, the better. Tools simplify and speed up that rote work that takes away from our time spent on original reporting and open up all kinds of possibilities. Specifically for our team, technical improvements have given us a lot more space for reporting. It is the opposite of what you suggest,” she responds seriously. But she does warn that “to save time, the tools have to be great, which depends upon the newspapers, the newsrooms that have engineering teams up to the task. Unfortunately, in most newsrooms, they don’t have enough engineers on staff. Thankfully at The Washington Post we have a fantastic engineering team. And the graphics team has several very talented journalists who code who enjoy building modules that make routine tasks quick and easy. All of which gives us a very solid technical bedrock to build on. I don’t believe journalists need to learn to code, but understanding possibilities is important, and actually using technology is important so that you understand how it works. At the end of the day, it’s about storytelling. And if your focus has been technology, you need to grow your storytelling ability. And if your focus has been storytelling, you need to figure out how to make technology work better for you —to help you tell stories better. But we need to tell people stories they haven’t heard in ways they haven’t experienced”.

Kat still makes some prototypes and will on occasion get down to the nitty gritty and lend a hand on design or programming, above all if a project has gotten backed up. “No, at this point I only have 3-4 bylined projects a year. I don’t actively miss being hands-on. Most of my work is in editing —working with the primary creators to strengthen the work and find opportunities for excellence. I believe that a great manager’s job is to focus on helping their team succeed, so being available to them is my priority. When I started managing five years ago, I recognized that and have tried to focus on becoming a better manager and more effective leader as time has passed. I do that in a lot of ways: reading, listening and asking for advice and feedback from my team, peers and bosses. Management and leadership are acquired skills. You might have some natural talent for it, but you have to nurture it and grow it and get better at it, and that takes work just like being good at any other discipline. I’m lucky to have a few people who have given me a lot of guidance along the way.” I ask her about her leadership style, if she would be willing to share some of her beliefs, guidelines or suggestions. “In order to have a great team, I believe you need to understand each person’s skills and motivations, as well as their long-term goals. They also need to feel appreciated and like they have a unique role in the group. So you can ensure they feel they’re moving forward and they stay curious and engaged in the work. At The Post, every week we do an update for each other we call ‘success and setbacks’ —it’s an open forum for sharing what works and what your challenges are with the other managers in the group. It allows us to offer ideas for how to approach problems and make sure we stay in sync. I think that is what people are seeing when they are now noticing a lot more high-quality work coming out of the Post. We always did great work, far before I was the director, but now we have a quantity of high quality work that is much greater. There’s a cohesion in the style and philosophy of the work that comes from the way we lead, which in the end translates into very strong content.”

Kat Downs is obsessed with innovation, of not being left behind. So much so that at times she makes decisions that surprise people. For example, during the recent U.S. election campaign, she hired an external company called Development Seed to create maps of the voting results. “Too often the news industry thinks it has the answers, and we’re often very far behind other tech and design firms in our approaches. There is a lot of progress being made out there by non-news companies in terms of technology. There is so much innovation happening, and we need to stay in touch with that and be inspired by it. A way to ensure the team stays on the cutting edge and to infuse news thinking with some of the interesting approaches these product companies are coming up with is to do partnerships where our team has exposure to the ways other companies work and think. We worked with an outside partner on our election project last year for a few reasons: to ensure we had the best technology, to bring some fresh thinking into what had become a routine coverage plan, and to free up the staff to work on analysis pieces around the election. They had a different way of approaching the project than we would’ve had and that resulted in some of the more interesting elements in our live maps. It turned out beautifully and I was thrilled with the whole experience.”

Turning to the subject of Donald Trump and the so-called war on the media, Kat refers to Martin Baron, her boss at The Washington Post: “He said it best, ‘we’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work’.” She raves about Baron: “Marty is a huge supporter of visuals, and has invested a lot in graphics. He has supported all our major initiatives —like the creation of Chartable and the increased amount of visual reporting we’ve been doing. He gives us great positive feedback on projects and also weighs in at critical moments on larger efforts. I like to show him our major projects in advance. He sees the work from a user perspective, so he can give very useful and insightful feedback. Marty believes that visual n As tools improve, I think a lot of the simpler pieces will be taken on by other folks in the organization. arratives are fundamental for the newspaper.”

Kat Downs, as you can see so far, is a woman who exudes energy and enthusiasm from every pore. She has no doubt that the future of journalism will see the visual element will take on even more importance. “We will definitely see more visual reporting and more reporters who create their own visuals.” She also believes that interactivity will come back into fashion again. “As tools improve, I think a lot of the simpler pieces will be taken on by other folks in the organization.” And although her responsibilities include creating an outstanding printed product, she acknowledges that the print newspaper is not, nor will it, be “a driving force for our future strategy” in graphics or in other areas of journalism. But social media definitely is: “Figuring out how to be succinct and clear and compelling in a space where lots of noise surrounds your work and you don’t have a captive audience: That’s an exciting challenge.”

And she knows all about that, having grown up in Franklin hearing others and having to make herself heard so often.

Top ten of a book free

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human societies by Jared Diamond. “This is a book that really influenced the way I think about human evolution and ‘success’. So many times it just has to do with luck and access to resources. You need to question your assumptions about WHY certain groups have succeeded so you don’t attribute success to factors outside our control.”

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. “This book was hugely influential for me when I was in college; I read it twice. For a while I was very into Objectivism as a philosophy, though now I have really mellowed away from it.”

Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. “I have been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman and just recently went to hear him speak. I love the way he writes, his imagination, and I enjoy a little bit of fantasy or magical realism, it opens your mind and helps you see the world in a new way.”

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. “I read this book shortly before being offered the promotion to Graphics Director. At the time it felt very much like a leap and I was worried about failing —but I decided to take the risk. Sandberg has backed away from some of the things she said in this book but on the whole I think it stands as a way to think about how women are in a unique position in the workforce, and what we need to do to break the ‘glass ceiling’. ”

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. “I found this book mesmerizing. From the structure and style, which was intricate, layered and beautifully connected, to the individual stories and characters.”

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. “This book is funny but spot on in terms of how technology is affecting our relationships and satisfaction with partners and life. It has a very smart take on the way media should be bringing us closer, but actually pushes us apart and makes us harder to please.”

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. “This is an easy (but LONG) read that I took with me on a vacation to Italy. It tells the story of a man whose job it is to build cathedrals —it put stories behind all the historic architecture I saw and for me, it brought the buildings to life; helping me see the stories behind the stones.”

The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession by Chandler Burr. “A friend gave me this book with a bottle of perfume about five years ago. It’s a book about the science of scent —but what stuck with me most is the idea of perfume as an art form. If you can have art for your eyes and art for your ears (music), why can’t you have art for your nose? It’s a beautiful thought and it surprised me that I had gone my whole life without thinking of it.”

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. “This is a beautiful, haunting story about faith, intention and strength. It has always stuck with me. From this book, I learned about how faith can persist and persevere despite the most difficult circumstances, and how even the most devout believers can be challenged.”

What do you think?