Posted by: structureofnews | June 21, 2021

Designing Information

Just the facts, ma’am – Sgt. Joe Friday, Dragnet

Not really. All stories need framing and narrative for the facts to speak, for audiences to engage, and for insight to emerge. We call that editing. But in an age of visual, interactive and multimedia journalism, maybe we should call it designing.

There’s a nice piece in the New Yorker (largely a review of a book, A History of Data Visualization & Graphic Communication) that makes a point that I love to make: That how information is presented – designed, for want of a better word – isn’t just an add-on to other forms of journalism that can make a story better; it’s as much an independent form of narrative that, properly used, can bring completely different insights to users.

It can even literally make the difference between life and death.

The piece starts with the now-famous chart of the space shuttle’s O-ring failures in frigid temperatures, and how poor presentation of that data may have misled engineers to believe the components were robust enough to hold up in cold conditions, and hence green-light the tragic launch. They had all the data; they just didn’t see it clearly. And that’s because it wasn’t presented correctly. As the story notes:

A decade later, Edward Tufte, the great maven of data visualization, used the Challenger teleconference as a potent example of the wrong way to display quantitative evidence. The right graph, he pointed out, would have shown the truth at a glance.

The flip side of that, as I wrote some time ago, was how information presented correctly can bring instant insight:

Probably the best-known example of the value of mapping is John Snow’s famous map (above) tracking cholera outbreaks in London, showing that an outbreak in the mid-1800s could be traced to a contaminated pump.   Without the map, you’re faced with a long list of addresses where outbreaks occurred; with the map, you can immediately see where there’s a real concentration of cases and hence where to investigate.

To be sure, those are examples of single information graphics rather than the all-bells-and-whistles multimedia interactive extravaganzas that we’ve come to expect from any major journalism project. But the core point remains the same: It isn’t simply how words are edited, pictures cropped, or charts plotted; it’s also how they are integrated, how the narrative flows, and how the audience experiences them that brings the understanding, engagement and insight to the fore. It’s how the information is designed.

A great example of this is in Operation Kill, a 2017 multimedia presentation from, yes, Reuters, of how Philippine police killed three men in a Manila neighborhood. You could have described the scene in words, included a couple of videos, added some photographs – but that wouldn’t have made the information anywhere are clear or as stark as what we actually published. Yes, the videos are powerful, and the reporting is great – but it’s how they are presented on the page that brings it to life. Or the wonderfully designed NSA Files project that the Guardian published, with the then-innovative video clips that walked you through the information.

Isn’t all this obvious? Maybe it is, but I’m not sure. We certainly celebrate the work that goes into the individual components of stories, and sometimes, when the design itself makes waves (Snowfall, anyone?) But the actual creation of that final narrative, including commissioning those elements, often doesn’t get the same kind of accolades.

In the long-ago days of print, this would have fallen under the umbrella of “art direction”, or been the layout department’s work. The term itself suggests less about organizing the information and more about making it more presentable. And whether that made sense then, it certainly makes less sense now.

Of course, not every story or project can get a ton of attention or resources devoted to it; and CMSes and templates can get in the way of truly bespoke information design. And sometimes you can be ahead of the audience as well.

As the New Yorker piece notes, even the now-ubiquitous x-y axis chart was something that people needed time to get used to and understand when Scottish engineer William Playfair first introduced it in the 1700s.

Playfair explained his approach using a graph that showed the expenditure of the Royal Navy over the preceding decades. Time is on the horizontal x-axis, money is on the vertical y-axis; the line wiggles up and down from left to right. With the advantage of a few centuries’ worth of perspective, it’s hard to believe that this kind of image would be anything other than intuitive to grasp. But Playfair, introducing the time-series graph to the world for the first time, had to work hard to get people to understand what they were seeing. 

I’m going to say, somewhat self-servingly, that the late lamented – by me, anyway – Connected China project falls into that category. It was beautiful, and offered up a tremendous amount of information. But it could have had more narrative, a more explicit purpose for users – and probably another decade of audience acclimatization. In other words, more information design.


  1. Superb…….!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. […] analyses that feature math and simulations. The journalistic form closest to doing this well are interactive graphics, and certainly we can do a lot more in that promising […]

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