Nigel Holmes is one of the first information designers to bring data visualization to a large, mainstream audience. He worked at Time magazine from 1978 to 1994 creating “explanation graphics,” visualizations that not only presented information but also explained concepts.
In 1995, he left Time to start his own illustration company and has worked with companies such as Apple, Nike, Visa, the Smithsonian, and Netflix.
He recently took the time to answer some of our questions about good and bad data visualization, how the introduction of the computer has affected illustration, and his path to becoming an artist.
What first interested you in illustration? After becoming an artist, how did you get involved with creating infographics?
As a young child in England, I loved the weekly comics “The Beano” and “The Dandy.” They were not like American comic books; they were never called “books,” for a start. These English comics from the late 1940s and early ’50s had recurring one-page (usually funny) stories featuring a cast of regular characters. They had names like Biffo the Bear, Lord Snooty, and Desperate Dan. The comics were printed on poor-quality newsprint, which seemed to go yellow as you were reading it, but there was something very attractive about them. I wish I had kept some. (Today, you can occasionally find copies online.) They made me want to draw my own comic strip, and I started many; but they went nowhere. I realize now that what did happen was that I got hooked on the weekly cycle of production; that was almost more important than the content (which was admittedly very silly). I’d like to say that comics taught me how to do pictorial storytelling, but it would be a bit of a stretch to claim that I was such a forward-thinking 7- or 8-year-old!
The first art school I went to was in Hull, a fishing port in Yorkshire, England. Then, in 1963, I got into the Royal College of Art and moved to London to study illustration. In two successive summers, I interned with Brian Haynes, an art director at the London Sunday Times Magazine. Brian told me I wasn’t a very good illustrator, but he seemed to like the way I approached the stories we worked on. He was my first mentor and taught me a lot. He’s the real reason I started to do information graphics (although that wasn’t a term used then).
When I left the RCA, I freelanced for Brian at several other magazines where he was art director. Another very influential art director, and friend to this day, was David Driver. For a number of years I worked for him at the Radio Times, the BBC’s program guide (for both TV and radio). I did many pieces—all informational—for elections, American moon shots, and other current events, but especially explanations of Olympic sports, starting with the ill-fated Munich Games in 1972. In 1977, I came to America to work for Walter Bernard at Time magazine in New York.
The definition of an “infographic” isn’t completely set in stone. Your own works not only present data but also explain how to do things. How would you define an “infographic”?
I have always disliked the contraction of “information graphic” to infographic, but it’s here now, so what can I do? When I left Time in 1994 to work for myself again, I started using the term “explanation graphic,” because “information graphic” didn’t seem to say enough on a business card. My definition of an infographic is something that gives the reader or web surfer edited information in visual form, tailored to a particular audience. That sounds pretty obvious and literal, but I’m constantly surprised at what gets called an infographic these days.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you believe that the clean presentation of data should be the ultimate goal for infographics. How do you view the relationship between illustration and information? What do the “bad” infographics of today do wrong?
People who do this kind of thing have to have a kind of split brain: analyzing numbers, then portraying them. When this balance gets out of whack, the result is not good. Too much illustration gets in the way of the info; too much reliance on abstract data can leave the reader floundering in a sea of lines and numbers.
You were one of the first people to popularize information graphics. When you first started working on your “explanation graphics,” where did you find inspiration? How did you decide what direction your illustrations went in?
The social scientist Otto Neurath and his main artist/designer Gerd Arntz, working first in Austria, then Holland, then England during the 1930s and ’40s, have been a great source of inspiration for me. They very successfully made data visible and understandable, in a simple way, by substituting little icons in rows for abstract bars. So you could see what the information graphic was about (the icons) and what the quantities were (the number of icons). Neurath’s master stroke was hiring Arntz, because his icons were beautifully drawn and really drew the reader into the graphic.
My own work at first was a little too illustrative, and Edward Tufte made a big fuss about what he thought was the trivialization of data. Recent academic studies have proved many of his theses wrong. (See: Bateman, Mandryk, Gutwin, Genest, McDine, Brooks. “Useful Junk? The Effects of Visual Embellishment on Comprehension and Memorability of Charts.”)
As an illustrator for the past 50 years, how have your sources of inspiration changed? Where do you find inspiration now?
All over the place! Fine art, jazz, nature (fireflies in the garden at 8 p.m. on a summer evening), conversations, newspapers, my iPhone. All over the place!
You said in an interview with John Grimwade that some of your best work came between 1978 and 1988, before you started using a computer. How did the availability of computers change how you work? What do you miss about working without computers? How do you think computers are misused today?
My worked suffered at first when I started to use the computer. But I have just about tamed the machine now so that it does what I want it to. That was the problem at the start: designers and artists allowed the computer to produce work that was restricted by what was programmed into it. The programming was done by engineers, who, at the start, never consulted designers about how they worked. So everyone’s work turned out the same, and there was a loss of individual style and any evidence that a person had created the piece.
Actually, I had been drawing in a very mechanical style long before the computer came along, so as an illustrator, I was happy with the transition. But it still took some time.
I don’t miss the old times, because what I can do now far outpaces the work I did then. The advantages of the computer far outweigh the disadvantages, especially as a freelancer. However, I still draw everything by hand first, sometimes very roughly, which I scan. Then I draw on top of the sketch using Freehand, in exactly the same way that I drew with a rapidograph on transparent acetate overlays on top of a sketch.
(I know, no one uses Freehand any more, but just because most of the industry uses Illustrator does not mean it’s the best drawing program. It isn’t.)
Conversely, is there anything you only use computers for? How do you think computers should be used? What’s better now, with the use of computers, than it was before?
I do everything on the computer, mostly because it’s the way my stuff has to be delivered.
When you took your sabbatical from Time magazine, you decided not to return. What about the atmosphere in the Time office did you not enjoy? Now, what type of atmosphere do you enjoy working in?
The editors at Time wanted me to take a more managerial position, a step up the career ladder, they said, with more money! But I was young enough to keep doing what I loved, which was making things myself, not directing others to do them. That has meant that sometimes, as a single individual, I have had to turn down larger jobs. But I’ll never have an assistant or a staff again. I tried that in England for 10 years before coming to America, and clients there would eventually say, “We want YOU to do the work, not so-and-so.” That meant I was taking on uninteresting work just to keep the assistant busy.
So now I work alone, have no meetings to go to, and, given email, the phone hardly ever rings. It’s terrific, no interruptions. I get up very early, go to the gym at 5:30 a.m., and start work at 6:45 a.m. or so.
How is the work you do freelance different from what you would have done if you had stayed with Time Magazine? Do you prefer it, and why?
Everything at Time was news- or current affairs-related in some way. That means that a week after you’ve done the work, it’s out of date. That was fine while I was there; in fact, I loved the weekly churn. If you made a mistake, it was only out there for a week!
But as soon as I left I started to do things that had some life and use after they had been printed. I keep every little bit of drawing, every icon, every component of a job (and, of course, the finished published pieces) in fairly orderly files, and I recycle incessantly, making relevant changes as necessary (to color or font, for example). I have my own large visual vocabulary of things I’ve done.
What projects are you currently spending your time on? What should we expect from you in the near future?
This year, I did a large poster that’s folded into Taschen’s huge book of information graphics. It’s a personal taxonomy of the information graphics field.
This month, I just finished a book for Lonely Planet, the Australian travel publisher, called the Book of Everything. It’s a 200-page hardback book of full-color graphics written and drawn by me, on a huge variety of slightly travel-related topics, such as how to deliver a baby in an emergency, predict the weather from clouds, play polo, prevent a hangover, eat a lobster, wear a kilt, recognize wild animal poop, etc.
My next job is Big Data, a book by Rick Smolan on all aspects of how data is worming its way into all aspects of our lives, sometimes in pretty creepy ways.
Then, I’m doing the second children’s book in the Pinhole series; he goes to Africa (the first one was set in India).