I met Nigel Holmes when I was art directing a magazine that needed amusing yet accurate pictorial diagrams that would show readers how complex financing methods worked. No one does that kind of stuff better than he. We’d meet in his Rockefeller Center office and he’d sketch the means of attack. The pie chart would really be a pie, with lattice crust and cherries.
Explanation Graphics…But So Much More
Holmes, the perpetual polite Englishman with a wicked sense of humor, studied illustration at Royal College of Art in London and freelanced for British magazines and newspapers for 12 years before moving to New York to work at Time magazine. His pictorial explanations of complex subjects annoyed some academics who thought he was trivializing information, but he (and Time’s editors) remained committed to the power of pictures and humor to help readers understand abstract numbers and difficult scientific concepts.
Now he runs his own business, Explanation Graphics, in Westport, CT., visually explaining all sorts of things for various clients and publications, including American Express, Scientific American, National Geographic, and The New York Times. And me and my clients, when the client has the budget and the sense of humor.
A recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for News Design, Holmes has written ten books on information design, including Designing Pictorial Symbols and Designer’s Guide to Creating Charts and Diagrams. This book, Crazy Competitions: 100 Weird and Wonderful Rituals from Around the World, is different from the rest. Maybe different from any book you’ve ever seen. I spoke to him last week about how this weird and wonderful book came to be.
The back cover says: “Your travel guide to the wildest cultural events in the world.”
Q: Nigel, what got you interested in this project?
A: I’ve long been fascinated by the Coney Island hot-dog-eating contest on the Fourth of July and have attended with my wife; I even do live enactments during my regular design presentations by imitating how Takeru Kobayashi, the winner from 2001 to 2006, can eat so many. I can manage just one—not the incredible 74, which is the current record—in ten minutes. That event and cheese-rolling in England were two crazy contests I knew about. I started to make a short list because I thought there might be enough for an article, or perhaps a book someday.
The book is arranged by continents. In the “Americas and the Caribbean” section—which also includes the Arctic Man Ski Race in Alaska and the Air Sex World Championships held around the U.S. Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is the one that started it all for Holmes. This infographic visualizes the winning number of hot dogs consumed from the first contest in 1972 to the present.
England could have been a book on its own, with 18 contests like Bog Snorkeling, Toe Wrestling and Pea Shooting featured. But this one, Cheese Rolling, inspired Holmes to really get going on the project and map out the hill where contestants have been rolling wheels of Double Gloucester since the 15th century.
So how did it go from ‘perhaps someday’ to a real book?
In July 2015, I was having lunch in New York with my friend Julius Wiedemann of Taschen, the art book publisher. I showed him comp spreads of the hot dog and cheese-rolling ideas and asked if he thought there was a possible book in this idea. He told me that if I could show him spreads of ten events, he’d take them to Benedikt Taschen, his boss. I did. A month went by. And then suddenly the project was on… and they wanted 100 spreads! Actually, it was surprisingly easy to find 100; I could have done a whole book each of odd events in the UK and Spain, which come in first and second in the world of crazy competitions—but Taschen wanted it to be as international as we could make it.
The amount of detail in each spread is very impressive. How much research did you have to do? And how long did it take?
Taschen introduced me to Chris Miszak, a researcher in England. He, Julius, and I put together a list of a few more than 100. Chris sent me some links, and I did a considerable amount of research myself. Then I sorted out what was excitingly visual, and what details I could fit into a spread. I spent about the same time researching the events as I did composing the pages in Freehand (yes, I never switched to Illustrator and am one of the hip oldsters hanging in the Freehand Forum). The longer I worked on it, the more interesting details I found that there just wasn’t going to be room for. The whole book took a bit more than a year to write and draw, and during that time I turned down almost everything else that came my way.
What could be more fun than Stinging Nettle-Eating? Holmes, playing with scale and contrast, shows details of the plant and its effects. Every spread includes a map of the country where the contest or festival is held, with specific location indicated.
What better way to show off a detailed yet lighthearted illustration style than to render every leaf that the Holly Man wears when being rowed along the Thames on Twelfth Night?
The Yukon is cold, so of course people there soak in the hot springs, then stand up and let the -22 degrees F. air freeze their hair until it turns white. The winner with the most original frozen hair-do gets $750 Canadian dollars, and Holmes gets to play with yet another illustration style.
You’d expect Buenos Aires to host the World Tango Championships, but you might not expect to turn a book sideways and see this graceful illustration, accompanied by a diagram of the dance steps and the code of conduct for participants.
Everybody knows about Spain’s Running of the Bulls, but what about The Gay High Heels Race that takes place summer in Madrid? The heels must be 6″ high, and (male only) contestants strap on their shoes with tape. Once upon a time, we learn, only men wore high heels.
And then there is La Tomatina, when trucks filled with 150,000 ripe tomatoes drive into the main square of a Spanish town and begin pelting the participants… and creating a great opportunity to demo ink-splatter technique.
Books can be the ultimate in spec work, right?
Yes, which is a bit anti-intuitive for a freelancer. Julius and I agreed on a lump sum, paid in three stages, one of which was the advance; hardly a year’s income. I delivered a complete set of files in September 2016, but Taschen held it back two years because it was to be published in German and French editions; the translation process took longer and was much more complicated than they originally thought. Although the delay was upsetting, I really appreciated that they wanted to keep my sense of humor in the other languages, and not do literal, word-for-word translations.
Would you think of Finland as the home of the Air Guitar World Championships? It has been since 1996, where musicians from all over the world compete for glory and a custom-made (real) guitar.
Finland must be a pretty cool place; it’s also home to the Mobile Phone throwing World Championships, which keeps used phones out of bodies of water where they’d become toxic waste. The 2017 winner threw his phone 363.2 feet.
At Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colors, in addition to singing and dancing, people throw colored powder and water at each other. And illustrators, thus inspired, can make appropriate art to depict it.
Is the book going to get you speaking gigs around the world?
Not yet. But when I’ve spoken at design conferences since starting the project, I’ve told audiences about the book, and shown them the very many versions of the cover I produced. I wanted to title it They Throw Dead Rats in Spain, but Taschen’s marketing department said no. They did say yes to making it a holiday gift idea for 2018.
For color and musicianship, nothing might beat the Elephant Parade, which takes place over three days in Sri Lanka — and gave Holmes the opportunity to draw this intricate elephant costume.
Equaling the elephant costume in beauty and intricacy, Thailand’s Monkey Banquet honors the primate population and features massive displays of fruit and sweets.
What might beat all the other festivals and contests in weirdness is Japan’s ‘Making Babies Cry’ competition, during which sumo wrestlers battle see who will make the baby cry first. Apparently some Japanese people believe that crying babies scare away demons and thus grow up faster and healthier.