News graphics professionals converged in Pamplona, Spain for the 23rd annual Malofiej Information Graphics World Summit for one week last month. Presentations covered the gamut. Adolfo Arranz preached the practice of urban sketching as a way to hone observation skills and develop connections with place. Matthew Swift talked about building online graphics that live behind paywalls. Eleanor Lutz discussed how and why one should create animated gifs to communicate scientific concepts. Feilding Cage demonstrated the post-publish life of interactives. And Katherine McLean took us on a virtual stroll into the ethereal world of visualizing smellscapes.

For detailed coverage of all fifteen talks, see Geoff McGhee’s great collection of Storify capsules, and conference posts by Tiago Veloso on Visualoop.

Despite the topical range, a few recurring themes in formal presentations and informal conversations bridged the gaps between representatives from small and large graphics teams, traditional illustrators and interactive coders, and publications with reputations ranging from serious to irreverent.

No info, no infographic
Presenters Manuel Cabrera (El Telegrafo) and Swift (The Times) articulated similar sentiments: information graphics should not be produced to simply hold space. They should only be included when they advance the story. Or as Alberto Cairo put it:

Cage (Guardian Visuals) added that it’s not the job of a graphics desk to simply take information from another reporter and make it pretty. It’s important for visual journalists to be involved in the research and development of graphics concepts.

Iterate, iterate, iterate
A few speakers walked us through how some graphics were developed, from concept to final piece. Marcelo Duhalde (Times of Oman and Al Sabiba) seems to take delight in lessons learned from developing a graphic solution, and then iterating on it until it breaks, all the way past the point of usability. If that breaking point comes too early–and therefore doesn’t work with the data set at hand–he may simply file the visual solution away and revisit it later with another data set that may be more compatible with the form. Others, such as cartographer Martin Gamache (National Geographic), spoke of iterations as part of the process of honing in on the best solution for a given project. He’ll try many small variations, in an effort to suss out the best way to tell the story at hand. Along the way, the practice of iterating builds on itself…informing future projects. From his slide deck: (originally credited to Aristotle, later corrected to Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle):

Whether you’re part of a small graphics team, like Cabrera, or a huge graphics team, like Karen Yourish (New York Times), it all comes down to the problem-solving skills and determination of individuals. Both presenters spoke of projects that were nearly thwarted when their sources wouldn’t provide floor plans for structures they hoped to use as the crux for a larger explanatory graphic. Neither gave up. Cabrera studied interior photographs, and deduced the floor plan for himself for a graphic on El Palacio de Carondelet. And one of Yourish’s colleagues was able to take a quick phone photo of a visitor’s map on-location at the hospital in Dallas that treated the first person to test positive for Ebola in the U.S, providing the foundation for a timeline on his treatment.

Learn the rules, then break them.
As a bit of a counterpoint to the elegant and minimalist style that has dominated Malofiej awards over the last several years, a few speakers this year spoke out in favor of playful and irreverent approaches. Allison McCann (FiveThirtyEight) fears that graphics-building tools are dictating our collective style, and media outlets are converging into an interchangeable style of boring minimalist charts and maps. Although her work reflects a solid knowledge of basic visualization principles, she’s an advocate for wonderfully weird, excessive, and complicated graphics. Charles Joseph Minard (1781-1870), was channeled by Sandra Rendgen in her talk about his classic maps. Best known for his Napoleon’s march visualization, he was at the forefront in combining charts and cartography. Although he clearly understood the importance of displaying quantitative data accurately–as illustrated by his careful data overlays, such as trade flow values on maps–he wasn’t concerned with showing the geography itself accurately. You could say that he selectively broke the rules, sacrificing geographical accuracy in favor of shifting the focus to the story told by statistical overlays.

Oh, and the awards part of the gathering? In a wonderful twist of media, the best-in-show print award went to the Times of Oman for their old-school interactive (cut and fold) paper graphic On the Ball. And the best-in-show online award went to Areas Under ISIS Control by the New York Times–a comprehensive visual guide, devoid of interactive elements. Click here for the full list of awards. I’m pleased to report that the Scientific American page below–graphic by Martin Krzywinski, spot illustrations by Portia Sloan Rollings, and text by Kate Wong, from the September 2014 issue of the magazine–received a bronze award. For details on how that graphic was developed, see Krzywinski’s process post. For the web version of the content, click here.

Graphic by Martin Krzywinski, Illustrations by Portia Sloan Rolling (Scientific American, September 2014)

Click here for a Storify collection of my tweets from the event. See my previous posts for thoughts on Malofiej19, Malofiej20, and Malofiej21.