Nigel Holmes on information design

This summer I read the Nigel Holmes on Information Design by Steve Heller. In it Holmes – former editor of Time magazine – talks about words and pictures, the importance of sketching and minimalism among other things. Here are some take aways of the book.

The book of Everything, Sinking Car by Nigel Holmes

The book of Everything, Sinking Car by Nigel Holmes

The equality of words and pictures

In this ‘working biography’ written by Steven Heller, Holmes emphasizes the importance treating pictures and words equally:

“In print, thinking of pictures and words welded together is the way to tell a story. Unlike traditional publishing models where “art people” are separated from “word people”, often for no more than logistical reasons, information graphics designers must straddle both camps.”

That’s why you need a ‘split personality’ to be a good information designer, Holmes explains:

“The numbers or facts must be understood and represented, but they must be shown as well. Making information visible means using both sides of the brain. My training as an illustrator helped the creative side. My old-fashioned English education helped the analytical side. Hard work helps.”

Statistics: selecting is lying

In the book Holmes talks about selecting statistics rather than lying:

“Most people think of charts as unassailably neutral – just the facts, ma’am. I’ve said this before, but like it or not, in formation displays are almost always making a point. Just selecting data ensures that this will happen. If you then integrate a drawing with those facts, a drawing that makes the point really clear, what is the final result? An editorial piece or “just the facts” with an illustration of the meaning attached to them?”

Sketching is thinking

Alberto Cairo has said it, Amanda Cox has said it, and Nigel Holmes says it too: sketching – visual thinking – is important.

“As to the other meaning of medium – what materials I prefer to use – all my thinking is done with pencil and paper. Once I’ve worked out the idea, I use a computer drawing program that allows me to set type and combine words and drawings in one file. The original pencil drawings are never actually used – I redraw everythihn on the computer. Using the computer means that changes can easily be made, which is good. But it also means that editors know it can be changed, which is often bad, because they know they don’t really have to make up their minds about the final iteration until the last moment.”

Less is more

No surprises here: someone with a minimalistic style as Nigel Holmes off course is a less is more kind of designer.

“To me, one of the great things about computers is that you can save what you’ve done, then, on a copy, go in and take out everything that get in the way of clarity, while still preserving the meaning. And you still have the orignal if you lose your way.”

Icons for Network World - Nigel Holmes

Icons for Network World by Nigel Holmes

Off course – by extension of that minimalism – the use of color in his graphics is sparse too:

“Start with just black and white, and only add color (for me that’s usually red) when I really need to make a point that’s different from what the rest of the art is doing. If I need more than one extra color, I’ll choose another primary color. I’m not that interested in the actual color itself, just that it differentiates itself from the others.”

Complexity, only when needed

Holmes describes a principle that says that since newspapers are around for a day they should be read and comprehended in a day; for magazines it’s a week or a month, and for books, forever. A nice theory, but then reality hits.

“What gets in the way of this, in a news context, is the importance of the event being covered. A terrible disaster lik 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina (…) can mean that extensive information is demanded, and is usually displayed in large size and with great detail. In other words reader interest is high, justifying complexity. People will take the time to study the graphic.”

Hard work helps

Nigel Holmes on Information Design shed a – for me – new light on things like realistic news graphics, the difference between staffers and freelancers, and how to keep your style as minimal as possible. No inmediate pratical take-aways, other than ‘hard work’ helps. Still, I’d recommend the book as a nice opportunity to think about the art of information design.