Caring about journalism means caring about data

Pt 3: Sketching is essential

Transformation of graph design, from first sketch to finished product. Final graph part of my capstone at Quinnipiac University, which can be accessed at
Read part one here and part two here.

One of the most useful things I’ve learned about creating info graphics is to always sketch out your ideas. I like to do it with pen and paper, but there should be options for computer-based approaches as well — especially with tablets and touch interfaces around.

You might ask why sketching is valuable for the design process. It brings you closer to your graphic, step-by-step. I had four different sketches for my radio history graphic, and it took that fourth sketch to convince me that the third one was the best way to go.

Sketches and final design side-by-side

That brings me to another design expert you should check out. Her name: Amanda Cox. She’s graphics editor at The New York Times. In this talk, among other things, she describes the process of sketching as trying on different hats to find out which one fits best. And it must be working because we’ve seen some pretty amazing work from her.

This creative pie chart is among my top graphics. Pie charts are a topic in itself, with good and bad examples all over the Internet (click here for a great pie chart 101). But this example succeeds on all levels. It shows the different consumer spending categories and breaks them down into a variety of subcategories — without cluttering up the graphic. Thanks to a lot of subtle guidance along the way, it’s easy to read the chart and explore the data presented.

I also highly recommend this stunning map, which shows migration patterns in the United States. It’s based on complex data, but the finished graphic combines clever design with state-of-the-art web technologies to produce an easy to navigate map.

While we are at The New York Times: There’s also Jonathan Corum. His insights into storytelling with data will be a valuable guide for the future. Here are two quick takeaway points: respect the reader and add meaningful annotation to guide your reader. There’s one option for annotation hiding in plain sight — graph titles. Try to see them as headlines and/or sub-headlines. Make them count. A third point that inspired me for my final project was to go beyond the left-to-right theme for a timeline.

Sketching will be a beneficial part of your workflow. It makes you think about the right format for your story. Try to find peers you can exchange ideas and sketches with. Talking about different options helps to find the best format (very similar to ‘classic’ writing). A big thank you to Professor Amy Walker. Our conversations throughout the semester, and especially surrounding the final project, have opened my eyes!

And if you’re in for some sketching inspiration, check out these real life examples or explore this book (its already on my list of must-reads).

If you like what you just read, please consider clicking the recommend button and/or leaving a comment. For more about me and other thoughts on journalism and storytelling, follow my blog here.