Many of us in the infographics business have a complicated relationship with the word “storytelling.” A few years ago it became something of a buzzword in the field, prompting some critical thinkers to point out that, in fact, not every chart or graph tells a story, per se—or should it. What these sorts of graphics absolutely should do is convey information, which is not necessarily the same thing.
That said, a well-composed story might integrate various visual and textual elements, including infographics. And doing so can go a long way toward an objective that storytellers of all descriptions have surely heard before: “Show, don’t tell!” Appropriately enough, this common exhortation formed the title of an infographics workshop I recently attended as part of this year’s Malofiej event in Pamplona, Spain.
Considering the focus of the workshop, one might expect an associated project to take the form of a data visualization, for example, or an explanatory illustration of some kind. Instead, participants split into groups and completed projects centered on one of the following activities: sculpting a model of an extinct animal out of polymer clay, making a social media–ready video or strategizing immediate coverage of a breaking news story.
Collectively, these three disparate and perhaps unexpected workshop experiences encompassed a theme reinforced throughout the series of talks at the Malofiej Infographic World Summit that followed: The nature of storytelling in the media is changing, and in many ways infographics experts are leading this evolution.
As a graphics editor less than three years into my journalism career, I find this idea heady, exciting and a little (okay, a lot) intimidating. Yet, when I think about infographics and their unique capacity to show what words alone can merely tell, it makes sense that graphics should be at the forefront of advancement in storytelling. For one thing, the quality of an infographic often hinges on its effective marriage of text and visuals—so already, two distinct disciplines are involved and bringing them together successfully can be an art in and of itself. Moreover, infographics are singularly flexible by nature: They can be static, animated, interactive or any combination thereof. They might be didactic, playful, poignant, provocative or hilarious. They can appear in print, on your computer or television screen, on your mobile device or in a virtual reality environment. This flexibility is at the core of the innovation I saw outlined by the diverse group of speakers and the work they discussed at Malofiej.
Perhaps the best introduction to what I’m describing came from Larry Buchanan of The New York Times who, as part of the Show, Don’t Tell program, gave a lecture entitled “What Is a Graphic?” Much of his presentation comprised examples of recent content from the Times paired (rhetorically) with the question, “Is this a graphic?” In many cases, I answered (in my head) with a quizzical, “no.” Yet, of course, the common thread running through all of the diverse work he showed—from videos to annotated photos, lists and gamified interactives—was the involvement of the graphics team in its development.
Graphics Editor Javier Zarracina reiterated the idea of video-as-graphic as he described his work at Vox, which often takes the form of short explainer videos designed to be shared on social media. Designers Renate Rognan and Sigrun Gill Fugleberg of Norwegian broadcaster NRK built on this theme with their talk on “Reaching Audiences with Moving Stories.” Their work goes beyond the typical pithy explainer video, diving deep into long-form stories and combining photos and video footage with emotionally charged graphical elements to pull at their audience’s heartstrings while simultaneously educating them.
In a more conventionally newsy vein, Simon Scarr discussed some of his ambitious projects at Thomson Reuters, such as a recent feature on the Rohingya crisis entitled “Life in the Camps.” This excellent piece of journalism, which won the Human Rights Best Graphic Award in Malofiej’s online category, is a prime example of how graphics can act as a central element of storytelling, weaving together text, photos, video footage, maps and data. Whereas each element plays an important role, it is the graphical representation of information that ultimately makes this collection of content function as a story.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention Ritchie King’s talk, “What Is the Connection between Data Viz and 'Storytelling?'” King, a senior editor for data visualization at FiveThirtyEight, explained how data-driven graphics can use some of the same key elements that writers use in composing stories. For example, a classic storytelling device is to open with a “disruption of order.” Data visualization can do the same—with an abrupt spike in a time series, for example, that draws viewers in. And, as in a good story, diction matters in data visualization; the style should match the subject matter, lest the meaning of a visualization become lost in a jarring misalignment of content and tone.
Although the Malofiej program was stellar overall, I was disappointed at the absence of Mona Chalabi, data editor for The Guardian, who was scheduled to speak but ultimately could not make the trip to Spain. I have been a fan of Chalabi since I saw her keynote presentation on “Informing without Alienating” at OpenVisConf two years ago. (And incidentally, her video series “Vagina Dispatches” is one of my favorite pieces of journalism to come out of 2016.) Some of her latest endeavors in data visualization are, paradoxically, audio-based. One of these is a podcast that allows listeners to reveal visual “extras” such as photos and graphics as they follow along with the audio on the associated Web app. Another is an effort to make visualizations accessible to visually impaired readers through so-called “audio charts.”
In the world of unconventionally defined graphics, this may be the idea that blows my mind the most: a graphic may not even be inherently visual. Buchanan tacitly alluded to this concept in his discussion of the Times’s recent coverage of the Las Vegas shooting, which employed a combination of data visualization and audio to demonstrate how fast the gunman was able to fire using a rifle attachment called a bump stock. In this case, the visual component—an animated chart plotting gunshots per second—reinforces what the audio conveys but is almost incidental in terms of essential content. The real core of the message, not to mention the visceral quality of the piece, comes from what is heard, not seen.
Furthermore, researchers have been exploring haptic data visualization as a means of accessibility for the blind and partially sighted. As virtual reality opens new possibilities in journalism, maybe haptic devices will become the next frontier in immersive graphics. And although such scenarios may seem to stray beyond the typical purview of visually focused graphics experts, the essential goal remains the same as ever: “Show, don’t tell.”
Indeed, it is a promising time to be a graphics editor. I am fortunate to have attended this year’s Malofiej and met some of the most talented and innovative professionals in the infographics world. And I cannot wait to see—or perhaps hear or feel—what comes next.