I'm in Pamplona, Spain, sitting at a table strewn with looseleaf paper, scissors and tubes of paste. My table is host to a German, a Swede, two Norwegians and a American. Around us, clustered about tables in groups, are representatives from 13 countries. Our common language is information graphics. Our most often-used tool--our laptops--remain packed away, forcing us to focus on the basics: concept and content organization rather than a polished product.

We're participants in the 2011 "Show, Don't Tell" workshop hosted by the Spanish chapter of the Society for News Design and the School of Communication at the University of Navarra. Combined with the World Infographic Summit and the International Infographics Awards, it's collectively known as Malofiej (named after the Argentinian infographer Alejandro Malofiej), now in its 19th year.

The task before us: develop an explanatory graphic based on what we learned on a tour of the Marques de Riscal winery the day before. As the art director of information graphics at Scientific American magazine, I am obsessed with the idea of illustrating the fermentation process. What is the biochemistry behind the transformation from grape to wine? But soon I am nudged out of my content comfort zone, and placed in a group with my table-mates representing a variety of personal interests, professional beats and publication forms.

We have to start from the beginning. Who is the audience for our graphic? What part of the broader wine-making story should we strive to communicate? How can we organize the information in the most engaging, elegant, and efficient way to best tell that story? These are familiar questions that help shape all of the information graphics you see in Scientific American. But sitting at a table with visual journalists with such a wide range of cultural, philosophical, and aesthetic backgrounds reminds me that those questions are absolutely critical. No amount of polish, style or color can mask a failure to consider the fundamentals. In any language.

Photo: courtesy of The Society for News Design, Spanish chapter (SNDE)