Interview with me by Creative Refuge
Nigel Holmes: Simplifying the Complex, interview by Mike Buchheit
Nigel Holmes creates graphics, illustrations and animations that try to explain things. He is principal of Explanation Graphics, a graphic design firm located just outside of New York City. His projects include advertising, books, charts and diagrams, corporate identity, logos, branding, and Web sites.
Mike: I see that you refer to yourself as an information architect?
Nigel: That’s a word that Richard Wurman coined. He used that word because he doesn’t like to use “design.” He feels that design is about the surface of things, and it certainly can be. I like to think of myself as a graphic designer. If pressed for specialization my company’s actually called Explanation Graphics. What I try to do is to explain things to people, and for people, and sometimes to companies about themselves. Taking some complex procedure, or event, or set of numbers, and making it understandable for people that haven’t got a clue about it in the first place.
M: In many ways you’ve set the standard in the field of explanation graphics. What led you into this specialty end of the design business in the first place?
N: Well, I’ve always been in this end of graphic design. In England as a student I studied illustration, and I got a job almost in the first year that I was in college, a summer job at the London Sunday Times. I met a guy there who told me he didn’t think I was a very good illustrator, but that I had a knack for explaining things to people. And actually things really haven’t changed much since then. I like illustration, however I’m not the kind of person who just does what might appear to be very straightforward graphics, I’m interested in pictures of information. So whether they’re numbers or how to make paper or how a laser works, I’m interested in the picture that tells that story. But also the relationship between the number of words that you use and the pictures. And which bits are better said in pictures, and which are better said in words, and how concisely you can do both of those things. I’m very interested in writing as well as illustrating and designing. Some of the first freelance jobs I got while I was going to the Royal College of Art in England were explanations. The very first one was about the Queen and her household at Buckingham Palace. What happens when she presses a bell in the afternoon and so forth (laugh).
M: Did you research the piece with a visit to the palace?
N: No, the magazine I was working for was actually approached by a butler who had been fired from the palace and wanted to spill the beans. I mean, nothing ever changes, this was ‘64 and it’s exactly the same today. Somebody does something like stealing a jam pot, and they get fired, and manage to wait the requisite number of years they’ve agreed not to say anything, and then they come out and say, “Well, this is how it was.” There was nothing sensational in what we did, it was just very interesting “behind the scenes” stuff.
M: When you tackle a project like that, as I’m sure you’ve done hundreds of times over the years, what’s the key? Is it the upfront research or perseverance or…?
N: Absolutely, it’s the research. You can’t make anything up. It’s like comedians saying, “I can’t make this stuff up—the truth is even funnier.” The “real facts” are what everything I do is based upon. There’s so little fantasy or imagination with what I do. There might be imagination in how I present the information, but not the information itself. In that respect I’m completely different from an illustrator who is actually using his or her own imagination or fantasy to conjure up things that can give people an idea. But the research is key. I really learned the importance of this while working at Time [magazine]. It’s a publication that’s looked at by four million people every week. I can’t tell you how many people write and say, “I gotcha! This is wrong.” As a result, the map and chart department, of which I was the head, had two full-time researchers who did nothing but research the maps and charts. There might only be three or four [charts or maps] in the magazine that week but they spent their whole time checking and re-checking the facts and calling people.
M: Do you find yourself more stimulated by familiar subjects or those foreign to you?
N: Actually both. I mean, I know a bit about a lot of things. I’m absolutely a journalist in the sense that as soon as I’ve done the job I forget all the information immediately (laugh). People will say to me, “You’ve just done an illustration about this, what’s the answer?” And I’ll say, “I don’t know?” And I’ll go and look at the illustration. One thing I’m particularly enjoying at the moment is a series of illustrations for Attaché Magazine, which is US Air’s in-flight magazine. A writer named Jim Collins and I do a “How Does It Work” column. We’ve been doing this for just over six years now, so we’ve done something on the order of seventy-five of these things. They range enormously from how to make maple syrup to how a vacuum cleaner works to what is the Aurora Borealis or how mosquitoes bite or how the baseball draft works. I mean, absolutely across-the-board everything: nature; medicine; science. The ones I like most among them are those I know nothing about. It’s the perfect job. I’m dreading the day they say, “You’re too old, you’ve been doing this too long.”
M: Did you play with puzzles as a child?
N: No, I hate puzzles.
M: That surprises me as you seem intrigued by how things work?
N: For all the numerical charts I’ve done I still ask my wife how to do a percentage (laugh). My mind just doesn’t work in certain ways, and numbers are one of them. I hate to admit that. A lot of the projects I’ve done are about numbers, explaining numbers. I just have to understand it the split second before I write it down and then I can thankfully forget it all (laugh).
M: But yours is a craft in which you’ve got to draw from the right and left sides of the brain, is it not?
N: Yes, that’s very true. A number of people have said that. Well, I’m a Gemini as well, so I’m kind of split down the middle anyway.
M: Could you give me a timeline that summarizes your career?
N: My professional life has come in three stages. The first was in England where I had my own company, including a number of employees. This was in the late 60s early 70s, and there wasn’t a great deal of work, or a least I couldn’t find it, and so this assistant I had, well, I was getting work just so he had something to do (laugh). Which was silly. And then a big job would come along and the client would say, “Well, we want you to do the job. We don’t want your assistant to do it.” Then my assistant would sit there twiddling his thumbs.
In the second stage when I came to America, all the business was taken care of and I could just concentrate on the work. Of course I had assistance automatically. But after sixteen years at Time I kind of got burned out. They promoted me. But they promoted me out of really doing the work that they hired me to do. I was granted a six-month sabbatical and after about eighteen hours I knew I wasn’t going back (laugh). No, really, it was about two weeks. They were very decent about it. There was someone really nice there at the time named Henry Muller, my editor then. He was a good man and said, “You’ve done enough work here that we think you deserve this.” He let me have the sabbatical, which gave me the time to put my foot into the world of being a completely independent freelancer. And I found that the work came quite easily.
So the third stage of my career was being by myself. But I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the first stage, which was to hire somebody and then spend all my time finding work for them to do.
M: Which scenario of the three do you prefer?
N: This one. I mean, I think I did some good work at Time and I did some very good work at the Radio Times. I can’t deny that. I’m happy to be on my own now. And having been out of the corporate world for ten years, I just couldn’t go back. Especially hearing the stories of what it’s like in the corporate world now—the nervousness all about, and the brutality with which they get rid of people.
M: How have computers changed your craft over the years?
N: They haven’t changed the craft. They’ve changed the speed. And to a certain extent they’ve extended my working life by coming along just about the time that my eyes couldn’t do the things they used to do in terms of accuracy. I mean, when I first arrived at Time we didn’t use computers. In 1967 the Mac hadn’t even been invented. Nobody used computers; it was all done by hand. I remember seeing the work of some of the older folks there in the maps department and, you know, they were getting on. They were probably the age that I am now, and their work was just a little less crisp than the younger people in the department. After they’d gone home we’d clean up their work a little bit. Now, if they’d had a computer they could have enlarged whatever they were doing on the screen and seen that a line wasn’t quite meeting up with another line and such. I can do that now. Without this I couldn’t do the caliber of work that I did when I first arrived at Time. In general, however, I feel quite strongly that computers have done a terrible disservice to illustration.
M: I find that interesting, and in my discussions with other artists, a bit of a minority viewpoint. Could you elaborate?
N: I hold to the old-fashioned idea that drawing—old-fashioned drawing from looking at something—is an important way to communicate. And if you can’t draw, no amount of computer trickery is going to hide that. And too many illustrators I see—and I know how they do it, because I’ve done this myself—rely on a stylization that you can get on computer that you could never get out of your own hand. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that I believe you should know the craft in the first place and not rely on a machine to suggest something to you. That’s basically what a computer is doing; it’s saying, “Hey, why don’t you draw it this way? And here’s a tool that will help you draw it this way.” As a result, when computers first came onto the scene everyone’s drawings began to look the same. Eventually it kind of settled down, and those people that could draw in the first place began to use the computers intelligently. But the best illustrators today, I think, are very wary of computers. They use them, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at their work. They use the computer in a very interesting way. To do things they can’t do themselves. But their own work is their own work. I don’t think you should set yourself up at your computer and say, “Give me a style.” The computer will do that. It’ll show you something and you’ll say, “That looks cool, I’ll use that?” But you’re not the one making the decision. You’re signing onto something you’ve simply stumbled across.
M: Has the diminishing attention span of the average reader in the computer age caused you to alter your approach?
N: I agree that attention spans have diminished. But I don’t think it’s the computer that has done this, rather the TV. I just think the TV has ruined everybody. This probably has nothing to do with graphic design, but the TV, and the advertising on TV, have made America fat.
M: Knowing that your audience may be more impatient these days, do you find that your approach is different?
N: I don’t think so. I just had to look through some work from my whole career for an article that’s being written about me, and I went back all the way to the project we discussed earlier on Buckingham Palace, and I don’t think I work any differently in terms of the amount of information I’m giving people. So it’s not less or shorter or in smaller bites. Maybe I’ve always done it that way, so perhaps therein lies the answer.
M: You’re a prolific author, at least on the topic of information design. Do you see yourself as a designer that writes or a writer that designs?
N: Initially I was definitely a designer who wrote. The first three books I wrote were during my career with Time. That was another reason to be grateful to them because they were very kind about giving me the time to pursue this. Of course, they saw it as a feather in their cap as well. The subject matter was showing readers actually how to do it—making charts and symbols and such. Also, I had some really good editors to work with who kind of steered me through that, so I didn’t really think of it as writing. But since then I’ve done a lot more writing. Now, I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m not a writer who designs. No. I’m still a designer first and foremost. But writing is becoming more important. And it’s inevitably in every bit I do. And that’s a frequent struggle to make people understand on magazines if they don’t know me. I ask for a certain amount of freedom to write the words that are going to accompany whatever the graphic is. Not the article, but the words that go with the graphic, so that I can bind the two together and decide which bits I can draw more efficiently and which bits I can write more efficiently. And over the years I think I’ve become better at deciding which to use, and of course, spelling in this peculiar American way (laugh).
M: Do you do any self-promotion at this stage in your career?
N: I don’t do any normal self-promotion in terms of taking out ads, placing ads in illustration annuals, or sending mailings outs. However, every one or two years I’ll print something in booklet form which is perhaps the text of a lecture I’ve given with a version of the slides that I’ve shown. For example, last year I had to write a piece for a Dutch magazine on the making of pictorial symbols, so I took the text, rewrote it, and produced a sixteen page booklet with illustrations. I sent them out to a few key people with whom I’d already worked. One of them called back and said, “You know, I wouldn’t have thought of you for this project had you not sent me that book.” And that’s a project that will, at the very least, pay for the booklet. I usually get a few thousand printed and they hang around for about two or three years. I also give them out at lectures. Also, I just started a relationship with an agent. I’ve never had a relationship with an agent before. And I didn’t like agents when I worked at Time because they prevented we art directors from having a proper dialogue with the illustrators. We didn’t have any time to deal with them, we just wanted to call the artist and ask, “Can you do this job for us? I’ve got to know now, because if you can’t, I’ve got to find somebody else because I need it tomorrow.” So I never had an agent until I met Caroline Herter at the Stanford Professional Publishing Course. She’s a book agent who attended a couple of my lectures and kept saying, “You know, we’ve got to do something together.” After about two or three years of suggesting this I gave her a few ideas for books.
M: Tell me about your lectures?
N: That started soon after coming to America. I got lots of requests simply because of my relationship with Time, and, quite frankly, I think people liked the accent (laugh). I’m always terribly nervous before lectures, but I love doing them once I’ve started. And I realized, having gone to a lot of different conferences, that most speakers don’t prepare properly; art speakers anyway. They just show their portfolio and say, “Here’s a piece I did,” and then, “Here’s another piece I did.” That’s really not a lecture at all. I started to think a lot harder about the form of a lecture, and how to make it fun. Some of the best lectures I’ve done have ranged over a lot of subjects, all based in art or photography or sculpture or design in some way, but have also included music and live musicians. My wife’s stepfather is a sound technician and he helped me to record little snippets of music so that I could form connections between music and graphic design. It became as much an entertainment as a lecture.
M: With a little singing involved on your part I understand?
N: Not very good singing, but yes, a little bit of singing. The effort was to basically let people have a good time, relax, laugh if possible, and hopefully come away remembering a few points.
M: Do you find yourself cueing in on signage in public places?
N: I do actually, certainly when it goes wrong (laugh). One of my more recent friends is a man named Paul Mijksenaar who is the designer of the signage at the New York City airports. He calls it “wayfinding.” He has made me appreciate, without knowing it, the difficult work that signage is. In my work I’m responsible to no one but myself. If it doesn’t work, someone will simply turn the page. But if his signs don’t work someone could be late for a plane. It’s much more responsible and with that responsibility comes many more committees and architects—architects who might have the upper hand in the design of a building and the interior design and have mandated that, for example, no signs could be lower than seven feet from the ceiling. These are rules Paul has to abide by quite apart from the design of the sign in question.
M: Who were some of your influences?
N: There have been two or three important mentors in my life. The first was this guy who I went to work with while I was still at college, an art director named Bryan Haynes. In 1964 he was breaking down the walls between people who write, people who do layout, and people who draw in magazines. And it’s still the same today, nothing has changed. People are in little boxes. The art department is the art department, and the editorial or writing department is the editorial department, and neither talks to each other. My second mentor was a man named David Driver who I did a lot of work with in England for a magazine called the Radio Times. And then the third and most important mentor was the guy who hired me to work for Time, Walter Bernard. He is a terrific person and is still a great friend. He was a true champion of what I was doing. I had walked into his office in New York after writing him a fan letter from England, and he gave me a job to do on the spot because he wanted someone to do information graphics and he couldn’t find anyone. I realized right there that any number of people who I knew and worked with in England could have come to America and done the same thing as me—I was just very lucky to be the one. We got on very well and he would push me to do more illustrated things and better things and he gave me large spaces to fill when the magazine moved into color. He would come with me to an editor’s office if there was a particularly confrontational illustration and he would back me up. I regard myself as living a charmed life because these men took me by the hand and said, “This is the way to do it.” Everybody should have a mentor, you know.
M: On that note, do you have any advice for the next generation coming into design?
N: Find a mentor (laugh). You have to be passionate in what you do. Look at history, definitely. It’s all been done before. Be passionate and willing to work really hard. Do little things first. I mean, I was exactly at the right point in my career when I went to Time, but I’d been cutting my teeth for about ten years before that. I knew lots of tricks. I knew how to make things come out of the end of my pencil, so that I could just concentrate on the information. I think that sometimes people think that they can do that immediately. There will always be some geniuses that can do things on the first try; of course I’m not one of them. I’m still learning.