Why function always trumps format

This is a slightly rewritten version of the talk I gave at the Society of News Design conference in San Jose, in October 2004. Unlike most information designers who probably spent the summer and fall of 2004 chronicling the real news—Bush's war, the Olympics, the scripted conventions, the dirty campaigning—I've been finishing a book called Wordless Diagrams. Apart from an index, there are no words in it at all. It comes out in April 2005. Using just red and black (and working in a small page format) got me thinking again about simplicity, and its role in explaining things. At the Malofiej judging in Spain this year (2004), we had a lively discussion about the relative merits of hyper-realistic ways of showing events, accidents, disasters and so on, versus simpler ways of showing them. Some of us on the jury championed the realistic approach and thought it perfectly appropriate for the subject matter, arguing that it brought emotion into graphics. Others felt (given the examples in front of us at the time) that the 3-d approach was overdone, if not downright sensationalistic, pandering to some unproven theory that readers want to see as much detail as they can get about any subject, however grisly. I should preface this by saying that in the two or so years before I left Time in 1994 I had been trying to simplify the graphics there, to tone down what seemed to me to be an outdated and overly pictorial approach to diagrams and charts. I thought that the readers of Time deserved some respect, and that the age of titillating them with cute, or funny—I hoped they were "witty"—pictures was over. What had seemed right for the excessive eighties was no longer appropriate for the nineties. My efforts to simplify fell on deaf ears. My editors said things like "so now you're just going to do boring old charts." A couple of years after I left Time, Joe Zeff was appointed Graphics Director. Joe is a great proponent of 3-d work, and it seemed to me—now 50 miles away on the gound and light years away mentally—that the editors who had loved my pictorial stuff (and were disappointed at my attempts to tone it down), saw in Joe's work the next big thing, and embraced it with a vengeance. I should add that while I was at Time, another Joe—Joe Lertola—had all along been interested in 3-d rendering, and was even writing his own programs to render 3-d maps. For me, Joe Lertola, a brilliant information designer, was the pioneer of the amazing technical renderings one can see in Time and Newsweek (among other publications) today. One of the reasons for the change at Time was natural evolution. Things change. Old graphics directors leave; new teams want to hire fresh blood; new tools become available. Time was simply replacing one style of graphic presentation with another. I'm sure they felt that what was new was good. In terms of the Iron Chef, they were replacing the vector guys with the 3-d guys. Did they have a better reason than "because they could?" Showing off the new tools aside, my basic question is this: are they the right tools for this job—the job of making information graphics? I'm also leaving aside the question of reproduction: magazines with high quality paper and production values are obviously better than newsprint at reproducing highly-rendered graphics. No, this is more than a question of reproduction. I wondered about five questions in the context of news design: 1. How much longer does it take to make super-real illustrations? At the SND conference, I loved this Harris Siegel story...3-d info artist to art director: "why are you taking a photo of that basketball? I could render it in three days." 2. Do you really know enough about a given situation to be able to honestly render it without making stuff up? Reality is unforgiving in its lust for detail; it's no good if you include wrong details, and worse if you make them up. So, ask this: "it's deadline time, do you know what ALL the details really are?" 3. What actually is the point of the graphic? It seems to me that for editors, sometimes the point is to:
  • dress up the page with some color
  • to make a splash
  • to give the graphics department their go in the paper
None of these are good reasons. But they are hard to resist; who doesn't want a nice big colorful graphic to put in their portfolio? Yet why does anyone want to dress up information graphics? Why make them more complicated than they need to be? Could it be because everyone else is doing it? (In the late seventies and eighties, art directors used to tell me that their editors would ask them to commission the kind of graphics they'd seen in Time, as though that was the only way to do graphics.) It's a bit like Mariah Carey overembellishing the notes in a song vs. Norah Jones just singing it straight. In that musical example, it's a matter of esthetic choice which you prefer. But in information graphics it comes down to the old "form vs. function" argument, because at its heart, information design is not about the LOOK of the thing, it's about the FUNCTION, isn't it? 4. What's the best way for the information graphic to tell the story? Sure, sometimes it is with a realistic view. But to my mind, in this business of information design, (and I want to keep stressing that point) more often simpler is better. I mean, why do diagrams have to follow animations and computer games, pretending more and more to be realistic, but actually appearing less and less like real life? 5. Isn't it actually better to differentiate your work from the rest of the paper or magazine, rather than appear the same as it? (this is assuming you have reached a level of true photographic sophistication with your graphics.) It's not just simple graphics that are slighted here; regular photographs in the paper are too, as readers begin to suspect that some of them have been "created" or manipulated in the same way the super-real graphics have. I say:
  • let photos be photos; for emotion and documentary reality
  • let illustrations be illustrations (indeed, let illustrators be illustrators)
  • let diagrams be diagrams
  • let computers be computers (but not cameras)
I'm not against technology, just how it's sometimes used. Actually, the best infographics I've seen recently were all about technology: during the Olympic games, the New York Times ran some wonderful "film strips" using Dartfish freeze-frame technology. They included written commentary on how, for instance, Dwight Phillip's long jump could have surpassed the world record if he had done certain things differently at precise moments along his run-up and take-off, all of which the reader could see clearly. That was a perfect use of new technology. But why try to hold up a camera to the Dow Jones Index or even to a plane crash when you are not there as it happens? The job of infographics is to analyse and explain the numbers or the event, not to mirror what it "looks" like. In trying to explain, we draw. Trouble is, too few of us are any good at drawing, so we rely on computers to help us out, to give our work a professional gloss. And some of us hide behind the dazzle of 3-d rendering, in the name of presenting "reality." (It's surprising after all these years, that the computer has made most of us worse at drawing. It may have helped output but it's killed art.) Limits to your box of graphic tools (and your palette of colors) are not a bad thing. Why not make a virtue of a certain lack of ability and do simple diagrammatic drawing: the kind of drawing that's perfectly suited to representing the ideas, floorplans, maps, diagrams and charts we have to represent? I think that information graphics artists do an increasingly important job in this attention-challenged world, and I don't want you to think I'm a grumpy old fart because I can't, or won't, or don't know how to use 3-d software. I really care about infographics. I don't know if hyper-realism can ever successfully bring emotion into a graphic, or whether it should even try, but I fear that too much reliance and time spent on rendering shiny surfaces is getting in the way of clarity, of understanding and, incidentally, of humor.