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People address me with "Sir" (instead of "mate"), cars are bigger than my living room, and there is a high density of males with pony tails and beards. I must be in the US, and at the SIGGRAPH conference.

While the last 2 days were quite interesting and inspirational (hopefully more about that soon), the main question of today was whether the keynote talk from Steve Duenes, Graphics Director at the New York Times, would fulfill the high expectations from the information aesthetics crowd present here. He heads a team of about 30 people, for the print media as well as all the interactive work. First impression: Steve is the only person in the huge ballroom, actually probably in the whole Convention Center, who seems to be wearing a suit. The big hall is only half full, probably because the main interests of the typical SIGGRAPH audience lays somewhere in the games, 3D modeling and computer graphics realm. His talk seems to center around the assertion that the main task of the graphics team is about journalism, instead of just creating visuals. I will be trying to link to the individual infographics he mentioned, but often was unable to find the correct URLs.

In his talk titled "A Visual Response to the News", he addressed the "brute reporting" power behind a typical NYTimes infographic, for instance all the background research that was involved in creating the "1 year after 9/11" map. He described the considerations behind the 3D rendering showing how Saddam Houssein was captured. Next, the graph shootings of Virginia Tech, which involved scraping the website of Virginia Tech university to find staff members, and identify the ones that were probably teaching in the building. People that were likely knowledgeable about the Engineering Building were contacted by phone, so that the interior rendering was based on such verbal descriptions with students and staff who were at the location at the time. The statistical summary graph designed when Michael Jackson died was accomplished in about 6 to 7 hours, as it went up late that night the news broke, a common practice in their news graphics business. To cope with such urgent deadlines, often the graphics team creates a static placeholder and makes an interactive work in the meantime. Steve also showed the graph depicting the patterns of dispersal after the Katrina disaster, and the locations of parking tickets in New York city.

Then followed the interactive map of Tom Bissell's painful and exhausting climb to the summit of the Kilimanjaro, which was created in about 1 week. The graph includes a 3D movie of the mountain, generated by height elevation data overlaid with a satellite image, and is accompanied by rich audio/video commentary. Onward to the past Election Maps, of the primaries and general elections, which involved the preparing of hundreds of daily graphics, often in collaboration with the team from the newsroom who prepared the database in the back-end. The main design challenge included the large amount of data, and the question how to let users learn, understand and find context without much effort. He demonstrated an interactive block histogram, an usual graph technique for NYTimes readers, which was published when the primary race was winding down, and showed the exit poll data. By interaction with the graph, users should understand the background of the respective voters. Ideally, such learning should be done without the readers struggling to learn.

Where do their ideas come from? They pay attention what other publications are doing and what competitors are publishing. The team members know many forms of graphics, and should know how to apply them when the opportunity present itself. He showed an infographic from National Geographic, with a 3D scene of reality inside a subway station, almost like real photography or photo documentary. Another Fortune piece used color only to highlight those things that are important. Accordingly, their graph of the stairwells in the North Tower, created with Adobe Dimensions software, was based on information from several structural engineers. While Dimensions is a simple tool, it still gets the job done. He confessed that animation is not their strong point, as they instead mainly focus towards clarity and taking out unnecessary graphic elements.

Sometimes the design influence is more direct: other graphs are simply smartly designed, or sometimes readers have become used to it. For example, the interactive "small graph" inclusion of the large graph in the typical Google Finance interface inspired "Casualties of War". The 2004 bubble graph of word frequencies at political conventions in turn was inspired by similar graph of Fortune 500, which also was roughly geographically ordered. The Fortune cartogram of Pope elections distribution of votes, inspired "A Map of Olympic Medals". Steve also demonstrated the word frequencies graph based on content of the inaugural addresses of US presidents, "Inaugural Words".

The NYTimes graphics department exists since 40 years, and so they have covered in history quite similar events, such as the Olympics. They do not want to follow similar approaches from the past, as there is a need to be original, surprise and delight readers. For instance, for the Bejing Olympics 2 reporters were on site to provide background information, and about 10 team members were in NY, working mainly at night. One of the issues was the lack of copyright on the video images. They talked to several biomechanics specialists and track coaches to get information of the 100m sprint graph, which was up several hours before NBC broadcasted the (delayed) event itself.

Finally, the name of Tufte is mentioned, as the famous Minard graph formed the basis for the development of a static ski Olympic event graph. Here, a similar visual approach was taken to denote where the ski athletes gain speed versus what the skiers think on those locations. Similarly, they collaborated with game company to create the ski course animation "You Finish, You Win", which is maybe a crude animation, but accomplished in a few days.

All in all, the talk was rich and interesting, but missed depth. The Q&A afterwards was more informative with questions ranging from "What should people study for a job in your group?", over "How do balance quality and tight deadlines?", and "How do you keep track of all your graphics?". It would in particular have been nice to have learned more about the design process within the NYTimes Graphic department, and the future of infographics, seen by what clearly is the current dominating power in online infographics.

UPDATE: Commenter Mahir points out an interview on YouTube with Steve Duenes by SIGGRAPH.




Great post! The Fin Times graphics department must have heard about the conference and not to be outdone, decided to make a graphic info splash of their own: an animated A model of a pandemic.

Check it out!


Thu 06 Aug 2009 at 7:52 PM

Thanks for the insider information from the conference, Andrew. Makes me feel like I'm there.

Greg, that Financial Times piece is funny that it prefaces the piece with info about the Swine flu, then use exagerated numbers in the actual interface. I feel it's misleading even though they explain it.

Fri 07 Aug 2009 at 9:01 AM

Hey Andrew,

very good summary of what happened in the keynote. Siggraph published an interview video with him on youtube. I thought it may be useful to link it.

Sun 09 Aug 2009 at 5:42 AM

This site rocks!

Wed 02 Sep 2009 at 8:08 AM
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