Picture Stories

Monday was a fairly hectic day, and as luck would have it, it was also the day the Missouri Honor Medalists spoke to large lecture halls about all of the awesome and exciting journalism things they do. I was pretty bummed I wasn’t going to be able to make any of the lectures … until I walked into my Journalism 2150 lecture, where to my (pleasant) surprise, Kevin Quealy of The New York Times’ graphics department was about to speak.

I don’t have tons of experience with graphics, but I made some (which we called “modules”) for my high school yearbook. These modules would contain alternative copy — answers to survey questions, statistics and visual comparisons, to name a few examples — that offered readers an interesting distraction from what would otherwise be 396 pages of straight text and pictures. Though I’ve never designed any graphics for The Maneater, I’ve written text for several and edit them every issue — we usually have about seven to 10.

Despite my minimal experience with graphics, I’ve always found them interesting. I love looking at different kinds from different media outlets, examining design and trying to discern what makes the graphic effective. I even have a Pinterest board devoted to graphic design, specifically typography and graphics.

Quealy showed us some great graphics, both static and multimedia, he’s created at The New York Times. One of my favorites was a multimedia graphic showing the times of gold-medal track and field winners beginning in 1896 — and then comparing them to the fastest track times of children today! Another was one in which designers compiled sports cliches into a story according to the number of times they had been spoken on ESPN in a given amount of time. I thought it was funny how much it sounded like an actual broadcast (minus the “Tebow! Tebow! Tebow!” closing).

He also took us through the process of creating graphics, showing us draft after draft of a graphic until the finished product (or, as he put it, “the best thing we could come up with before the deadline”) was created. It was interesting to see how the first few were very basic and became increasingly complex as the drafts continued.

However, one of the most valuable things I took away from that lecture was a list of things to remember when creating graphics, which consisted of the following:

  • The future has an ancient heart. What’s old can be new again, and you can improve upon previous graphics or include information that is old. I know we spent lots of time in Yearbook looking at graphics from other schools’ yearbooks and from previous years, and we use the Maneater archives as inspiration for some of the designs we have. We’ve brought back ideas that worked quite well.
  • Distributions are more interesting than averages. Let’s be honest: We like separating people into groups, and we’re interested in how one group compares to the others. Some of the highest compliments I’ve heard about graphics show how different parts of the population are directly impacted.
  • Scale is more than a key. I’m not the only one who’s an awful judge of distance. Seeing something’s size compared to that of a basketball court is infinitely more effective (in my opinion) than just listing a measurement.
  • Sketch with data, experiment with forms. You can’t make a pie chart out of a list of dates. You can, however, make a timeline, and a few drafts later, present that in a really cool way.
  • The difference between “knowing” and knowing is data. Data supports statements. In our world, this is crucial.
  • Tell stories. No matter the age, most people love books with pictures. A graphic is just a picture story.

I hope to use the above tips when making graphics of my own, whether at The Maneater, the Columbia Missourian or beyond.

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