Wednesday, January 11, 2012

5 Questions with Nigel Holmes

With his round blue spectacles and blue outfits, Nigel Holmes is a brand unto himself. I first met him at the Presentation Summit in 2010, though I've been a fan of (and inspired by) his graphics for many years. His work has distilled complex ideas into memorable, easy-to-understand graphics for periodicals such as Time magazine (where he worked as the graphics director), National Geographic, and The New York Times. He is an author of several books including Wordless Diagrams, Nigel Holmes on Information Design, and a book for children, Pinhole and the Adventure to the Jungle. Currently, he is principal of Explanation Graphics, a graphic design firm located outside of New York City, where he creates graphics, illustrations and animations for advertising, books, corporate identity, logos, and websites. We were honored and excited when he agreed to answer our 5 questions for our blog. For interesting (and effective) ways to speak visually, Nigel Holmes is the man with the graphic vision.


  1. During your keynote at the Presentation Summit, you showed a lovely picture your granddaughter had drawn (quite the budding talent!). I then wondered about your childhood. Did you have a passion for drawing and diagrams as a child? How and when did your interest begin?

    I have some drawings from when I was about 7. Not wonderful. But when my father died I found an envelope of my stuff he had kept over a very long period: drawings from when I was about 12, and also cuttings from magazines I had worked for in England and later from Time magazine. It was a touching surprise to find them. I never knew he saw Time magazine in England—it wasn't a regular in our home. Some of those early bits and pieces he had kept were kind of diagram-like, I suppose. It was only when I was at the Royal College of Art in London that my real interest in explaining things began. For a couple of summers there, I interned with Brian Haynes at the Sunday Times of London, and he pointed out that although I was studying illustration at college, I wasn't a very good illustrator ... but for some reason he hired me. (Perhaps he liked the fact that I had been the art director of the college magazine, Ark, as he had been in his own time at the Royal College.) I learned more about graphic design and explanatory journalism in those two short internships than in my six years at art school. Brian was busy breaking down the walls between the art department and the so-called editorial department (people who wrote stuff). It was a real introduction to the necessary marriage between art and words; areas that were traditionally partitioned off from each other, with the art department reduced to merely making a page look nice—mere decorators. The intense weekly schedule, and real deadlines at the Sunday Times excited me. Brian was combining words and maps and diagrams and illustrations and photos and old engravings and bits of enlarged typography in an effort to tell stories in the most compelling ways. When he left the Times, I followed him as a freelance contributor to other magazines, doing diagrams about Wimbledon, the London docks and Buckingham Palace. I did use illustration in these jobs, but the illustration wasn't the point; clear explanation of particular aspects of the subject was. This was 1966.

  2. In your book Wordless Diagrams, you use simple diagrams to show various acts from everyday to slightly bizarre, such as how to change a tire to how to pierce a tongue. You show how graphics are a “visual alphabet” where a reader doesn’t need to know a spoken language to understand the steps you are relating to them. How do you begin the process of distilling complex actions and ideas into simple visuals as in your book?

    The idea of a visual language that I have tried to emulate comes from the work of Otto Neurath. Together with artist Gerd Arntz, Neurath (himself a social scientist not a designer) produced charts in the 1930s and 40s using what they called a visual "helping language." They never intended their work to be completely wordless (and thus internationally understood), but regarded the visualization of statistics as a very important way to persuade people to look and be interested in subjects that they may not have been interested in if they'd just been shown a table of numbers. Over the years, I have drawn many little parts of things—cars, planes, boats, animals, trees, food, buildings—and men, women and children running, walking, digging, soldiering, playing the trumpet, laughing, or sleeping. At the end of each job, I dissect the chart or diagram, whatever it is I've been working on, and put the separate parts into folders labeled "people," "animals," "buildings," etc. They are my own vocabulary, and I use them again and again. Perhaps one day in the distant future, some graphic historian-nerd might analyze my work and show where the same little icons of people or houses have popped up in different, unrelated jobs! Neurath and Arntz actually kept huge three-ring binders containing prints of every single little icon they made, glued in neatly, all categorized. You can see them in an archive in Rotterdam. Some parts of complex actions are best shown in pictures, some are best described in words. I break down the actions to be explained into likely pictures and just work through it until I think it's accurately explained. There's no real secret, or formula. Some things that I want to explain can be served with a single picture and an attendant commentary (usually in the form of "step 1," "step 2," etc.); others are more like a comic strip. It does depend on the context (where it will appear), too. I can take more liberties with certain magazines, or my own books, than I can with The New York Times or National Geographic.

  3. In a pamphlet you gave out to the attendees at the Presentation Summit, you wrote, “Today the best information graphics are a happy marriage of words and pictures, with each partner playing the role that they are good at, and holding back when the other has more to offer.” This is a concept we teach in our graphics training and many times are asked how do you know when to give the words more weight over the graphic and vice versa. Can you provide any pointers or is it something that you know instinctively having studied and worked with design for many years?

    I think I may have answered most of this in your question 2. But I would add that one should never be afraid to suggest that the best solution to an assignment might be all text rather than what was proposed as a graphic by an art director or editor.

  4. What is the number one mistake you find graphic designers make? How can they avoid this mistake?

    Including too much information. I make this mistake often myself. It's the natural result of finding out lots of interesting information while researching a subject, and being loathe to edit it out. But editing is one of the most important things in information graphics. By editing I mean both making sure any text is grammatical and properly spelled, of course, but more importantly, editing out anything that's not necessary to the efficient telling of the story. The beauty of the computer is that you can save something you've done, and look at a copy of it to see what can be left out. That applies to content, color, and extraneous decoration ... anything that's getting in the way of the message. I find that an interesting way to start every job is by limiting myself to black and white, or perhaps black, white and one color. Then adding color if/when it becomes actually necessary.

  5. What one tip would you give our readers to help them improve their visual communications?


No comments: