Monday, August 23, 2010

Advanced Photoshop Magazine interview

Check out issue 73 of Advanced Photoshop Magazine for a nice writeup on the ever-growing niche of informational graphics. I had the pleasure to get interviewed by writer Natalie Johnson for this article. Click on the picture above to see the feature. For anyone interested in the niche, or in how we work in general, I've added the full interview below. Enjoy:


Give us a quick background bio on you, how and why you got started and describe your career path from starting out to where you are now?

I got my B.F.A. in Illustration from Ringling School of Art and Design, class of 2002. In May of 2002 I worked as a news art intern for the St. Petersburg Times. It was there I was introduced to infographic design. In February of 2003 I worked as a staff graphics artist for Asbury Park Press, and devoted my time to informational design and illustration. I also designed weekly feature pages, which was a huge part in learning how to design infographics cleanly. I worked on subjects ranging from the outdoors, to business, history, science and sports. In the summer of 2004, I took a staff informational graphics position with Associated Press, which is where I currently work today. I also run a busy freelance business, working with clients such as Field & Stream, The Nature Conservancy, Pfizer, Boating Life, etc. My freelance career has been really rewarding and growing by the day. It's nice to carry over a staff artist work ethic into my clients' work.

What is it about infographic design that you enjoy the most?

I enjoy the challenge immensely. I was always the "read what's on the back of the cereal box" type of guy and believe with infographic design we as artists have an opportunity to teach readers something visually, which is much different then a story can do. I have a background as a traditional illustrator, and when I completed my first big infographic, it was like everything that I enjoy creating clicked.

How would sum up your style of infographics and what makes you different from the competition?
I work in multiple styles, both traditional (pencil, ink, etc) and vector, and also motion graphics. I think with infographics niche the most important thing is displaying the subject cleanly, which I strive to do with every piece. I also strive to make projects as stress free as possible for clients, which I think really helps them juggle their daily routine on their end. I really feel my experience as a staff artist helps me work with clients, in that I understand their workflow.

Why do you think there is a need for infographics today? How has this genre of illustration changed over the years in your opinion? Do you know how and why it came about?
I believe there is a high demand for them today, and its not just because I'm an infographic geek and my pay check counts on it. Infographics are useful in that they can work side by side with a story, or displayed alone as there own piece. I feel people over all have a need to absorb things visually today then ever before, and you can see it in the way magazines and advertising are designed in recent years. How they came about? Probably cavemen... that would be my guess. One of the tribe leaders was really good at spearing animals. A few of the other tribes people were tired of being gatherers, so they had him draw in the sand how to kill an animal with a sharp stick. There's your infographic. He was also very popular with the ladies, so they had him diagram grooming tips as well. Infact, the more I think about it, it was probably one of the tribes women who drew the diagram for him. Outside of grunting and throwing heavy objects, I don't think us men had the proper organizational skills.

What do you think is the point of infographics? What affect do they have on consumers/public and why?

I think to inform. How typical is an answer like that? In honesty though, you can use something like the recent Gulf oil spill as an example. You read stories on the disaster and listen to reporters tell you want they are trying to do to stop it, or you can look at a well designed infographic showing you exactly what they are attempting to do, and it all makes sense (somewhat). Graphics may assist a story with informing, or stand alone and inform as their own piece. There's also a educational side as well, such as text books in schools. The list is never ending.

How do you balance the piece - i.e is it more important to get the information across or is there more of a need for it to look good?
I always believe with our work the information comes first. You can have a beautifully rendered piece, but if the information is stale, then the work loses its point. I want the reader coming away from the piece learning something. Our business is unique in that the subjects change from day to day. I like to joke that based on my assignments, today I get to be a doctor (medical illustration), and tomorrow maybe I'll be a scientist, etc. You have to keep reminding yourself when you work on an infographic, someone reading it will be a expert on the subject you are showing. My goal is to make the work good enough to teach the experts something.

How do get work in this field? Do companies contact you? Do you pitch to clients? Is it important to have an agent?

I get most of my work from referrals or clients seeing my work printed or online from other jobs. It's important to have a personal site, so if they decide to look you up, your portfolio is a Google search away. I do pitch to clients when I have downtime, which usually consists of sending them a personal email with some work attached or a phone call. I don't have an agent, although they are definitely worth looking into for future artists getting into the field.

What is the best way for designers to get work in the infographics sector and survive against the competition?

If you have a passion for anything in the art world, you have to pursue it. Infographics are very competitive but in my experiences, it's a niche filled with great people, so they should never hesitate to reach out for advice. I would say to someone new, start with a subject you know a lot about, and try to make an infographic on that.

Can you explain your workflow to us? For example are you given a brief and the information and then how much freedom do you have; is there a lot of passing it back and forth, what do you do at the conception stage, what tools and apps do you use to create the project, how long will a project take etc?

Projects vary greatly, but with most of them I'm just given a subject or a basic story line, but sometimes I will also be given some research and reference for what a client wants, which really helps us get on the same page. There is constant back and forth throughout the whole process. I make it a habit of giving clients daily updates, like a brief email in the morning so they know where the process stands, and nothing is left a surprise. I always start my infographics researching the subject to find the best story we can visually tell (if the client doesn't already have a vision for it or the research at hand). Once I get familiar with the subject, I come up with a rough sketch on what I think we can ideally show the piece and begin researching and referencing the visuals to see if it can work. What's important here is sources. You have to know what sources are trustworthy and which ones are not (like for an example, never use sources such as wikipedia, because the information can be altered or even worse – false). This may sound like a lot of work, but I can usually have it done in under an hour. Once I have my reference and research in hand and familiarized, I'll make a more completed sketch giving the most important information the most real estate. When all parties are good with our direction I immediately render my final illustrations, and write and edit the text. I try to show as much information as I can visually to keep the piece as light on the text as possible. Depending on the piece, I will render my illustrations traditionally (pencil, watercolor, ink, etc) or digitally in Adobe Illustrator. I'm equally as fast in both. Text will also be done in Illustrator. After the art is rendered and the text is written, the piece is built in Illustrator following the design herarchy from my rough sketches. If the piece is stand alone I'll come up with a good headline and write a lead paragraph to pull it all together. Its a long process but I have a fluid system down. I've completed full infographics in under 4 hours on a rush deadline, and as fast as 3-5 days for the larger, poster-sized pieces on my site. I try to count the number of gray hairs added to my head in between, but usually stop because I remember I'm on deadline.

Can you give us your three top tips for designers practising the art of infographics and three top tips for breaking into the industry? For designers breaking into infographics:
1) Look through every outlet you can get your hands on and study the infographics that you see. Take notes on what you like and dislike, and try to incorporate that in your own visions.

2) Learn how to properly research and write, and what sources are trust worthy and which are not. A lot of clients have this step done for you but understanding sources and reference will help you go a long way with your work.

3) Lose the egos. This is very important when working with clients and in a staff job. Make the process as stress-free for your client as possible and they will call back for future jobs.
For designers practicing:
1) Again, lose the egos. I can't stress the importance of that enough.

2) Push your comfort level and constantly learn new things. It may be learning a new style or program, but you want your work to constantly move forward in both execution and content. Start looking into motion graphics and how they can be used in your work. There's so many digital outlets it may open a new direction for our niche.
3) Have a sense of humor. I really feel like you need one in our industry. Sometimes when the going gets tough you can lighten the situation with a good laugh... then of course kick some butt on the project.

Can you explain to us about one particular highlight project - or memorable project in your career thus far (please provide the final infographic image of this and any conceptual or half finished version so we can show the various stages in the way it took shape). How did this particular project came about? How did it progress? What were you commissioned to do? How many consultations did you have? How well would you say the final result was received?
One of my favorite projects in memory came about when Pope John Paul II passed away a few years ago. I came into my staff job at Associated Press that morning, and we immediately came up with a large-scale infographic showing the details of his funeral, including a cutaway of St. Peters Basilica and other heavy illustrated content. News happens fast so we wanted the entire graphic finished and moved to our wire the next day, so millions of newspapers around the world can print it. By lunchtime I got started on the illustrations and crammed myself into a small studio room armed with a pencil, few watercolors, and an old mac that had like the first copy of itunes on it (sometimes it helps to have tunes on deadline). Five hours later I had a big cutaway of St. Peters finished. It was the fastest thing to this scale I ever drew, and there was no room for error. The next morning we came in early and I drew the map and other elements, and helped built the remaining pieces and moved the graphic. Working in a team really helped us meet our deadline (we had skilled researchers, a designer, and me on the art, as well as editors checking our content as we worked). It was a wonderful experience. The next day all of the major newspapers ran the page in New York City, as well as other cities around the world. I had my morning coffee watched strangers look at the piece while they read their paper at breakfast. All in a days (well, two days) work. Also, every piece I do for Field & Stream is special to me. As a child, I had a stack of Field & Streams that rivaled most kid's comic book collection. I spent many hours drawing deer and bass from the pages of the mag while memorizing the articles. I always dreamed of working for them. I've currently been a contributing Illustrator for them for over two years now, and I look forward to every illustration.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Using color as a tool

You can never have too many "tools in the shed" as a professional Illustrator, and when we get lost in our sheds looking for something fresh (my shed can get pretty messy from time to time), its easy to forget one of the most useful tools we have is color itself. While experimenting, try shying away from your usual pallet and limiting yourself to one powerful color, and see where it takes you. You may hit a few road blocks at first, but when you break through you will have something to grow with.

I plan on pushing this a lot more in my personal work, but I'm also lucky enough to have clients who really want to push the envelope with their content. The talented staff at Field & Stream is one of them, and has always taken illustration and infographics to the next level while pushing the execution of content to the highest standards. I had the chance of working on the Opening Season of Hunting Feature for the 2010 August issue, where color wasn't just used as a tool, but as an entire theme.

Here's a look. One thing I enjoy with this package, is flipping through the magazine you immediately become drawn in by the intense greens, which are used in a way that is not overwhelming. This is important on your end in illustrations, to keep in mind you're not "overwhelming" you reader with the color, but rather using it in a tight, smart way – and in some cases, sparingly as these illustrations show:

Here's a a few more from the feature:

For comparison sake, here's a look at last year's package utilizing yellow as it's dominant color. It was a challenge to keep contrast in the black and white wooded areas to give the diagrams some weight, while balancing the intense yellows. I'm also posting one of my roughs, which is an important part of the process:

When I render environments, I like to keep a realistic quality to the work, that I feel sometimes gets lost in infographics. Illustrating a buck hunt in the woods is a perfect example. I want to keep that "chaiotic" feeling readers get while stalking a trophy in a mess of trees and brush (as we all know in both hunting and fishing, the "trophy" is always hiding in a place you need to get banged up to get to). I try to capture that feeling in my roughs and carry it through to the final illustration. The final render:

Here's a few more from the feature, keeping the same feeling throughout:

... And there you have it. Color so bright it'll burn you retinas. Ok, not really, but definitely a tool you'll want to keep sharp in the shed, no matter how big or small your shed may be.