It’s time to show, not to tell!

Show, don’t tell is one of Innovation’s Media Consulting mantras and one I’m very happy to share (disclaimer, I work as a consultant for Innovation). The idea is that infographics or visual journalism present a great, engaging way for publishers to share their stories with their readers. Not only visual journalism is one engaging way of telling stories it is also, sometimes, the best way to do it. Humans are mostly visual beings and have a natural ability to learn from sight.

On print, graphics can be used to complement a story or can become themselves the full story. With the amount of data that is produced and published every day, data visualization is also making its way onto newsrooms around the world. To have journalists that can understand data, know how to mine it and are able to design visual solutions to present huge data sets is a must-have anywhere these days.

As any other journalistic story, when planning and designing a infographic, journalists must be sure of all the data and all the information they are using. Everybody inside the newsroom must understand and follow through that infographics are not illustrations and cannot be used as the ‘page layout saviour’. Never give up on the journalistic values of just publishing what you know.

Some of the latest examples of how visual journalism can go very wrong are all the graphics, published around the world, about Bin Laden’s death. With the lack of real information for such a big story, newsrooms felt obliged to publish something, anything! As a result we had visual journalists inventing mountains where there were none, choosing which helicopters the military used, etc… The amount of graphical fantasy that was published was amazing. So many errors where made that world known infographic’s star Alberto Cairo and Innovation’s Juan Giner wrote a statement published on Nieman Watchdog website asking to stop this madness and asking for journalists around the world to endorse it.

But, apart from this mistakes and the still persistent feeling in some newsrooms that visual information is nothing more than illustrations to go on the side of a text, infographics are becoming, more and more, an important journalistic tool. And if this is true to the print publishing, it is even more when we talk about online news publishing. By adding a layer of interactivity on top of ‘print’ graphics, journalists found a  way of engaging their readers on a story that is very rich and powerful.

These days, many news websites are doing interactive graphics and no one does it better than The New York Times. With a team of more than 30 professionals for this craft, from designers to specialists on maps or statistics, the old lady keeps showing us how to master the interactive visual journalism.

Sadly, most of the web’s interactive graphics have been done using Adobe’s Flash and neither Steve Job, nor the iPad like this tool.  For all of the online discussing last year about the web not needing Flash anymore, very few words where written about the need for it, to produce interactive infographics. The truth is that there is a real need for a tool that allows designers (not developers) to produce simple interactivity.

I’m one who believes that we need to have developers, right now, on newsrooms along side with designers and journalists. Since this is not the landscape right now, we still need a tool that enables people working on newsrooms to be able to animate their graphics.

(Note: There is such a tool, launched a couple of weeks ago. Hype will help a great deal of visual journalists around the world. I intend to write about Hype very soon on this blog. UPDATE: You can reed the article and an interview about Hype here.)

This lack of Flash on the iPad as been noticed. Most news media applications don’t have interactive graphics, even if their websites have them. Of course that, as always, there are a few examples outside the norm. For the iPad, I could not talk about interactive infographics and fail from mentioning two amazing examples: The Times and Al Gore’s Our Choice iPad applications.

Newscorp’s daily newspaper has been working with the amazing London design studio Applied Works to develop some of the best interactive graphics I’ve seen on the last years. Even more impressing, they did it for the newspaper’s iPad application. You can check some of their brilliant work here.

Another app with some amazing examples is Our Choice. The ‘green’ ebook is a must have for anyone interested on how to present data that allows interaction on the iPad. Sadly, I couldn’t find a place that could show in detail these works. You can check Push Pop’s website for some quick examples and, hopefully feel inspired enough to go to the App Store and buy the book for yourself.

Regardless of the few examples found on news media iPad applications right now, I have no doubt that interactive graphics are a major tool for journalistic storytelling on tablets and the future of publishing. With that in mind and with the knowledge that, eventually, we’ll have more and more tools allowing journalists to build such narratives (remember Hype?), I wanted to share some points that are decisive when developing interactive infographics for tablets:

a) Hotspots must be used just for three reasons: First, for navigation purposes (moving forward and backward on a simple step-by-step story). Secondly, use hotspots to add new information layers to your graphic – secondary information that is not vital to the narrative but adds to the final experience (such as the ability for readers to explore the data set and find their own stories, inside the story). Thirdly, use it to show information that, because of lack of space on the screen, you cannot display on the ‘ground’ design (of course, this is a last resort solution. I believe that if a given design isn’t working, then you should redo it, instead of compromising at the cost of your reader’s experience).

b) Remember that the iPad is not a website, therefore your application won’t probably have ‘hitable advertising’. Most websites use interactive graphics as a way to increase the number of hits on the page’s advertising. Each time you push a button, the whole page refresh and adds a new hit on the advertising.

Keep hotspots to a minimum, driven by content and not because you can do it. Most designers working on iPad applications are originally print designers and interactivity is a cool, funny new thing for them. Hence, the amount of useless hotspots that I see on my iPad is huge. Most of the times, a new designed interface would get rid of those hotspots.

Please keep in mind, just because you can do it, you don’t have to do it! Your readers will thank you.

c) Many graphics published on print are nothing more than ‘number illustrations’. Without added information, simple charts are less effective to show quantities than text. For example, which one would be clearer for you: 45% of this and 55% of that or a chart pie with those two values? (OK, I did choose two very similar values to make my point, but I believe you understand me).

A great way to add a new layer of information to your charts when publishing them on a tablet app is by adding a simple audio hotspot. Touch it and get one of the publication’s editors telling you what that given chart is and what it means for the accompanying story.


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