Q&A with Alberto Cairo, author of ‘The Functional Art’

Alberto Cairo is the author of “The Functional Art,” a new book about infographics and visual journalism. He has extensive experience in the newsroom and in the classroom. In this interview, conducted by email, Cairo talks about the principles of infographics and data visualization, and how writers and editors can contribute to their creation.

Q. What do you hope to achieve by writing this book?

A. “The Functional Art” is a book for designers and journalists mainly, although it can be useful for anyone who has to create charts, maps, diagrams and explanatory illustrations, even if he or she doesn’t have any experience in the field.

It is not a book about software, but about principles that can guide the effective design of graphics. And it is not written in a textbook-style, but as an essay. My main goal with it is to offer a comprehensive framework to understand all kinds of visual displays of information based on the idea that information graphics are, above all, tools for understanding.

I started writing the book years ago, when I taught infographics and visualization at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. When I tried to put together a list of readings for my students, I realized that there was not a single book that summarized the foundations of the discipline.

I also wrote it because journalists and designers sometimes get lost in the growing bibliography coming from related areas, such as statistic representation, cartography, scientific visualization, interaction design, etc. They don’t really know where they should get started or what are the common guiding principles and practices all those disciplines have in common.

Q. What role do writers and editors play in the creation of effective infographics?

A. Infographics and visualizations are a mix of copy and visuals (graphs, maps, diagrams). You cannot have a good graphic based on nicely designed visuals alone. You need good copy, organization, a solid structure, a clear focus, etc. That’s what writers and, above all, editors, can and should provide at first. But there’s more.

I usually say that an infographic should not be the product of a designer working alone with the occasional input from a reporter and an editor. That’s what happens in many newsrooms: writers work in their computers, and send some info to designers, who take care of the visuals.

That’s the wrong approach. A good infographic is always the product of teamwork. Editors and writers must get heavily involved in the information graphics in their newsrooms, sit with designers, sketch ideas out, do storyboards. Infographics are not about using software, and they are not just about illustration, charting, mapping or art.

The key skill to have to do infographics is not drawing, but schematizing ideas, stories, and concepts. Obviously, if you do know how to draw, that can help, but it is not mandatory.

That’s why I believe that anybody can learn to design information graphics to a certain level. And my experience has taught me that editors and writers are particularly good at it, even if they are a bit hesitant at first when I introduce them to charts and maps in my courses.

The reason many of those folks are so good (even if they don’t trust their own potential because, you know, they have been educated as “word people” in j-school) is that they are used to devise narrative structures based on raw information. They are used to extract meaning from data and from sources. They know how to create hierarchies. They spot what is important and what is background info.

All those skills lie at the core of infographics and visualizations. I can teach you the rest: a bit of graphic design and interactive design, how to use the software (Illustrator, Excel, even programming), what graphic shapes are appropriate depending on the data and the story, etc.

Q. We’re hearing and reading a lot about data visualization in journalism. You argue in the book that data visualization and infographics complement each other. How so?

A. An infographic is a tightly edited visual presentation of information. It is equivalent to a news story: a reporter gathers information, processes it, organizes it, makes sense of it, cuts out whatever is not relevant for the story and presents the results to the audience.

A visualization, on the other side, is a tool that a journalist or a designer develops for readers to explore a data set. A visualization doesn’t need to tell a particular story. Each reader will come out of the visualization with stories of his or her own. See, for instance, the interactive application that The New York Times developed about the 2010 Census data.

That’s a visualization, clearly, because it doesn’t really make any editorial point. This kind of project is also journalism, in my opinion, as it facilitates the access to relevant information, but it’s not an infographic per se.

That said, the distinction between infographics and visualization is not as clear as it seems. Take this graphic I made with a group of colleagues about how much Brazilian representatives spend on telephone usage every year.

You can easily argue that this is both an infographic and a visualization. On one side, it tells you the basics of the story. It highlights its most important points: Brazilian representatives spent a lot (in Brazilian terms) on telephone bills in the first eight months of 2011: more than $7 million (13 million reais). If you had to spend that amount of money calling a friend, you would be on the phone for 298 years, straight.

The graphic shows you the total and the ranking of the worst offenders. This is the “infographics” side of the story, what is usually considered traditional journalism: the headline, that is funny and striking (“298 years of conversation”), and the summary of the main data points.

But the graphic also includes a “visualization” side, which is that we let readers look for their own representatives, and filter by state and by party: on the big dot plot, you can look for particular candidates, click on each little circle to see how much each of them spent, and read the entire spreadsheet (click on “veja os dados completos”, which means “see all the data”). This is the “visualization” side of the graphic. So, in some sense, infographics and visualization are complementary.

Q. As people get news and information on mobile devices such as the iPad and smartphones, what does that mean for the future of infographics?

A. Designers and journalists will have to get smarter to present effective summaries of their data and stories and, second, to develop interfaces that let readers dig deeper into the information, in case they are interested.

A good infographic or visualization is like an onion: It should have several layers of information that readers can navigate. If you understand this principle, you will be able to apply it to any platform. Graphics on small screens have to find the balance between presenting short snippets and allowing depth.

Even if it doesn’t sound like an easy task, I am optimistic. I thing that tablets and smartphones are a new world to be explored, the same way that computer screens were the big thing more than a decade ago, when I started designing interactive graphics.

Learn more about Cairo’s book and follow him on Twitter.