The Daily Heller: Nigel Holmes’ Joyful Data Delights

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Dental work is not fun. Data work, however, can be fun—indeed, joyful—for consumers. Arguably, joy is to statistics what laughing gas is to dentistry (or, if you prefer, what the carrot is to the stick). This certainly is one way to describe the data visualization introduced to American editorial design in the 1980s by Nigel Holmes, the veteran dataviz pioneer and former infographics guru at Time magazine. In his new book, Joyful Graphics: A Friendly Human Approach to Data (AK Peters Visualization Series), joy is manifest in even the presumably hardest-to-understand examples.

Not being a statistician or dataviz expert (although I do like quoting comparative data sets that can be used to prove my claims that the modern world is going to hell in a handbasket), I asked Holmes if he would select a handful of his favorite entries in his veritable data-memoir. (The only thing possibly more enjoyable than Joyful Graphics would be to read a memoir comprised entirely of data visualizations. Think about it.) Holmes readily agreed to this invitation, and the result is a self-portrait of how information (even when complex) can bring joy into the receiver’s (and definitely the designer’s) lives.

Bring on the joy, Nigel.

Pages 12–13

“Although Taylor and Francis are academic publishers, they and my editor on this project, Alberto Cairo, agreed that I wouldn’t write a textbook for them. In fact, they encouraged me to include personal anecdotes about influences and so on, and I was happy to show the work of my great Uncle George—the only person with any ‘art’ in the family. Part of his output was immaculately drawn side views and plans of the many different fishing boats that worked off the English coast in the early 20th century.

“In 1969, Brian Haynes, the art director of the magazine that was part of the Observer (a Sunday newspaper in London), asked me to draw the same fleet for an article they were doing. Unknown to him at the time, Brian gave me Uncle George’s as a reference for the job.”

Pages 16–17

“For a book with Joyful in the title, I thought I should include some of the books and TV and radio shows that made me happy. (And still do.) Who could resist that Barnett Freedman cover for Lear’s Book of Nonsense? And Good News chocolates? That box was one of my first introductions to infographics. Take that, Forrest Gump! In England we always knew what we were gonna get. What’s more, the names of the chocolates are the lyrics for George Harrison’s Savoy Truffle. (Have to say I didn’t know that when I was eating a Montelimar, a Creeeeem Tangerine, and a Pineapple Treat.)”

Pages 42–43

“Showing stuff in context is a key part of information graphics. (You understand something better when you see it next to something you already know.) How much bigger than a million is a billion or a trillion? If you had a million dollars in $100 bills, you could pack it into an overnight bag. For a billion you’d need an 8.5-foot cube. A trillion dollars in $100 bills would fill up the whole of the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal in New York City. I’m trying to help people understand these huge numbers that are flung around with reckless abandon.”

Pages 74–75

“David Driver was the art director of the Radio Times (the official BBC program magazine), and he was great at putting artists together to work jointly on articles about news stories that the BBC was covering. For this 1975 spread from the magazine, about the Apollo-Soyuz hook-up in space, Peter Brookes did the astronauts, and I did the capsules and docking station. Peter is currently the editorial cartoonist for the Times (of London), where his incisive and funny political cartoons are drawn in a totally different style.

“Just like Time magazine when I first went there in 1978, the Radio Times had a limited number of color pages in each issue, and they were sent to the printer several days in advance of the black-and-white ones. Somehow it all worked out.”

Pages 170–171

“I did a monthly ‘how it works’ diagram for USAir’s in-flight magazine Attaché (beautifully designed by Holly Holliday). This one from 2000 was one of my favorites, and it includes something that I do often: a sort of Greek chorus of little people making comments about the graphic they are in. In this case, they were on the side of the reader, who generally didn’t need a manual for how their car engine works when they are waiting for the plane to take off while squeezed into a (probably) uncomfortable seat. They just needed something simple.”

Pages 188–189

“Bits and pieces that I couldn’t find a [thematic] place for in the book are in the appendix. (All good books should have one!) But there are implicit lessons; here, simplification works well in graphics and toys.

Ladislav Sutnar, a great information designer, made exquisite, and wonderfully simple, wooden toys.

“I gave myself permission to include a linocut that I made of a beautiful little cat that belonged to a neighbor but who came to visit me and sit on my keyboard most days.

“See the white ‘8’ in the arrangement of diamonds? It’s like the white arrow between the ‘e’ and the ‘x’ in the FedEx logo. I get joy from that kind of thing.”