Summer 2007

Bart and Lisa go infografista

Malofiej 15

Pamplona, Spain
25-30 March 2007

Best known for drawing foreigners from far and wide to run with the bulls through its ancient streets, Pamplona, the capital of Spain’s Navarra province, also welcomes a smaller but no less international group to the annual Malofiej Infographics World Summit, hosted by the Spanish branch of the Society of News Design (SND-E) and the Faculty of Communications at the University of Navarra.

Now in its fifteenth year, the event is rightly described by the SND-E president Javier Errea as ‘the point of reference for visual journalism all over the world’. More than 120 ‘infografistas’ came from twenty countries to learn, share, judge and celebrate the best in information graphics, over a week of workshops, awards, opinion and debate.

The conference takes its name from Alejandro Malofiej (1938-87), an Argentine designer whose work displayed the best attributes of a successful infographic: simplicity, accuracy and creativity. Demonstrating all of these, a favourite from the awards this year was ‘Keepers up against the wall’ from the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. It won a gold in recognition of original journalism and outstanding teamwork as well as its thorough research and craftsmanship.

Making complex data understandable remains at the heart of infographic design and was the unifying theme for an otherwise diverse group of people, disciplines and media. The event’s top award is named after another early proponent of information design, Peter Sullivan (1932-96), best known for his infographics for The Sunday Times in the UK. It was won this year by The New York Times for its Sector Snapshot online infographic. This was the first time a sole online infographic has claimed the top honour over print, no mean feat in a field that the jury otherwise deemed to have ‘stalled’.

As well as looking good, Sector Snapshot ticked all the boxes as a showcase for the interactive online graphic. It has a simple format that allows users to manipulate a mass of

in-depth and live information so that they control what they’re looking at. Whereas a print graphic can present only one sub-set of complex information, by adding interactivity the infographic can work on two levels. The New York Times describes this as ‘the Bart and Lisa approach’; of the two siblings from The Simpsons, Bart jumps straight in to try out things for himself, while Lisa’s approach is more considered and studious. Sector Snapshot can work for either.

The sophistication of this graphic stood out among its peers, due in no small part to the investment in resources at The New York Times. Matt Ericson, the paper’s deputy graphics director, spoke about the newspaper’s recent integration of the print and online infographics teams. They all now sit together, making it easier to transfer existing infographic expertise from print to online. Graphics are developed for print and / or online as appropriate, rather than print always leading the way.

To the envy of many participants, The New York Times’s 32-strong graphics desk is recognised as equal among the paper’s other news desks. Not being valued as a journalist is the most common frustration aired at the conference every year, so it was refreshing to hear from Aitor Eguinoa, founder of the Spanish studio 90grados. Five years ago he and an equally disillusioned colleague from the graphics desk at El País set about looking for new markets for their infographic talent. From their output, both in print and online, it is evident that they have succeeded in selling the idea of infographics to clients in new industries, such as the Spanish grocery giant Eroski. By applying what they had learnt from the traditional infographics heartland to new sectors they have showed great forward thinking, recognising and exploiting the fact that traditional channels for infographics are changing.

Someone else taking infographics out into the wider world to harness the ballooning quantities of information is Dave Gray, chief executive and founder of Xplane. His premise is that, with the optic nerve being the fastest route to the brain, visual communication is an indispensable tool in a world where the price of gaining attention is rising. But, he admitted, even the jury he headed found itself coming back to the question ‘What is an infographic?’.

The answer to this question can be found by considering the only factor common to the work seen in Pamplona every year: the visualisation of information and explanations. While it is clear that markets will continue to shift, and that media will continue to diversify, the criteria for successful infographics remains the same.

First published in Eye no. 64 vol. 16 2007

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.

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