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Behind the Curtain at Malofiej—Mecca for Visual Journalists

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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On Saturday, March 8, I arrived in Pamplona, Spain, a familiar destination for many in the information graphics community. Pamplona isn’t the easiest destination in Spain to reach—from anywhere, really. But that seems to have become part of the point. It’s an annual pilgrimage for many visual journalists. And pilgrimages shouldn’t be too easy.

This was my third year in attendance at the Malofiej World Infographics Summit hosted by the Spanish chapter of the Society for News Design and the School of Communication at the University of Navarra. My first year was a revelation. I did it right, and signed up to arrive early for the Show Don’t Tell workshop—a three-day master class led by some of the best in the business. I was confident with my skill set, but it was a huge learning experience to be thrown into international multi-lingual teams, stripped of our familiar hierarchies and tools (no laptops). We huddled around tables strewn with colored pencils, and were forced to focus on the underlying basics. What story were we trying to tell, who were we telling it to, and how could we weave that story together as a group with very different voices? No slick final renderings to hide behind.

In many ways, that three-day workshop in 2011 defined Malofiej for me. Fast forward to 2013, and I find myself nodding emphatically when Alberto Cairo welcomed this year’s workshop attendees by saying that to him, Malofiej is about teaching, learning, creating community, and sharing. The three-day workshop and summit that follows (when the number of participants grows 10-fold for 2.5 days of presentations and socializing) certainly has confirmed that sentiment for me.

There’s something powerful about meeting people that lead parallel professional lives, using different languages, in different places, for different audiences. Inspiration and lasting-connections abound, from quick conversations over coffee, to presentations and themes that I’d find myself revisiting in my mind months later.

But this time the gathering was different for me. The week wasn’t just about teaching, learning, creating community and sharing. It was also about judging.

I was honored to be asked by the organizers to participate this year as a speaker and member of the jury. And I was excited to initiate more conversations about covering scientific topics in information graphics. As a presenter, I could tackle that objective straight on. (For a sense of some of the themes I discussed, see this post on the Scientific American site, and this guest post on the Malofiej site.

I was also really keen on seeing what my counterparts around the world viewed as their own best work. This was to be the 21st occasion of the annual competition—a Pulitzer analogue for visual journalists. The summit participants only get to see the gold medal-winners immediately on the big screen during the unveiling of the winners. Images of the silver and bronze medal graphics are often available online in the weeks following the event, and all of the winners are eventually published in a book. In the past I had valued the jury’s selections quite a lot. But I longed to see the broader body of work represented by the summit attendees. Perhaps from the broader selection of entries, an exciting new form of data visualization, or a fresh approach to marrying figurative and abstract imagery would emerge—an idea not fully successful yet (and therefore perhaps not yet medal-worthy), but inspiring and thought-provoking nonetheless. I wanted a glimpse behind the curtain.

Be careful what you wish for. I was granted a full-access pass. But now I had to judge.

Reviewing entries for Malofiej's 21st infographic competition.

My fellow jurors (and thus, the speaker panel) came from a variety of backgrounds, not limited to the newsroom. Most had roots in classic daily-newspaper or monthly magazine reportage. We also collectively represented large corporations, freelance artists and researchers, traditional illustration, programming, static and motion data visualization, and a body of work that that walked (or sometimes unapologetically jumped right over) the line between journalism and art. Jury composition skewed a bit towards the Americas this year, and even with collective English, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Dutch, and a smattering of other language skills, some graphics were probably at a disadvantage due to our inability to breeze through reading headlines and other written clues. (Props to the organizations that provided translations along with their entry forms!)

The rules of the game kept strong voices from dominating the initial selections. First round, no talking. All graphics from a single category spread out across long tables. A slow, solitary shuffle down the table, with plastic coins in-hand. Four coins in the opaque cup (each from a different juror), and the graphic was pulled out of contention. We were voting to eliminate. Repeat for each category.

Second round, vote to nominate for a medal. Still no talking. Four coins in the cup, and the graphic went on to the third round. Graphics without four coins were pulled out of contention. (Jurors were not allowed to vote for graphics from their own organization).

Third round, finally, some discussion. I was sad to see that a few of what had become my favorite graphics didn’t make it through to medal debate. But I can see the benefits in waiting until the third round before discussion. As individual jurors we all sought somewhat different criteria, based on years of disparate experiences. Only graphics that resonated with enough of us as individuals would be discussed as a group, preventing our selections from becoming an echo chamber for the most impassioned member(s) of the jury. (I should also mention that individuals connected in any way to a graphic being discussed were banished from the room). Some decisions were easy, and unanimous. Others were more contentious. But I applaud my fellow jurors for calm, smart commentary. (I will hear their voices in my head when I critique my own work in the future. And my work will be better for it).

I’m confident that our selects for top medals were deserving. (Note that there is no predetermined number of medals per category). But as someone who constantly thinks of my specific audience when developing graphics, I can’t help but think that we missed out on celebrating some pieces that might have been wildly successful in the context in which they originally appeared. But we can’t recreate that original context. Nor is the jury the original and intended audience. There’s also something very exciting about graphics that transcend their original context. Those were our medal winners.

Inspiring Competition Entries. TOP: "The Mars Rover Curiosity: Journey from Earth to Mars," from Moskovskie Novosti (Russia), by RIA Novosti Infographics Studio. MIDDLE: "Cut, Pull and Stretch: Medicine's Bloody History," from Mundo Estranho (Brazil), illustrations by Revista Mundo Estranho. BOTTOM: sample from "Nuovi Linguaggi" page, from Corriere della Sera (Italy), by DensityDesign.

As a footnote, I should mention that I was a bit concerned about some of the buzz after last year’s winners were announced. The New York Times dominated the gold category in 2012, winning six out of eight medals. I didn’t question the jury’s decisions: the New York Times presented some brilliant work, in their distinctively restrained, elegant and smart style. But was Malofiej inadvertently encouraging convergent evolution? Would other news outlets begin to emulate all aspects of a style that might not meet the needs of their specific audiences? No doubt, many of us can learn from the Times. But I think we also have much to learn from others.

I’m very happy to report that the entries in 2013 were as varied as the audiences they serve, from the avant-garde data visualization portfolio on a range of topics from the “Nuovi Linguaggi” page of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, and the bold and graphic approach to illustrating the Mars rover Curiosity in the Russian newspaper Moskovskie Novosti, to the gestural and expressive illustrations supporting a history of medicine timeline from the Brazilian magazine Mundo Estranho. (Warning, not for the faint-hearted, this slideshow on Mundo Estranho’s website shows illustrated vignettes from the print pages, but does not show the fully designed timeline presentation that won a silver medal at Malofiej–which put the provocative illustrations aimed at a young audience into full context and elevated the series into an exciting information graphic package).

Yes, this time was different. And I hope next time will be, too.

Click here for a Storify slideshow of my tweets from the week. Check out #malofiej on Twitter for thoughts and links from other attendees and presenters.

About the Author: Jen Christiansen is the art director of information graphics at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @ChristiansenJen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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