Speaking of awards ...

The 60-Second Know-It-All project (in its original incarnation, the 90-Second Know-It-All) began as an attempt to innovate my way out of a closing trap.

Layoffs were looming and it didn't take a genius to see that our Graphics department was going to be in one of the first tumbrels. The market for big, printed display infographics was drying up - not just here, but around the country. And frankly, on the newsroom's cap we had never been the very button.

So I contemplated having the tools taken out of my hands. Yet I also knew that I hadn't yet put those tools to their fullest use. All my 3D modeling apps and illustration apps could also be used for animation. A terrific way to tell visual stories -  though there had never been much point in thinking about it as long as the old newsroom job classification structures and layers of middle management were in place, of course.

Now, all that nonsense was falling apart.

Seemed like the perfect time to try something totally new.

I've spent the last two years feeling my way along, teaching myself new skills and new software as I went, producing this video series out of my basement with a budget of $0. One of our early entries famously garnered all of eight views. Others have done considerably better though, and now - despite having to compete against dedicated staffs with resources, training, direction - we find ourselves with Emmy statuettes on our desks.


Green grapes of Proserpine

Photo by Julia Neff

My first-ever award wall. In fact, the first time I have ever put an award of mine on a wall, period. Not my style. But my daughters like it.


My first overseas interview.

Here's the complete transcript of my 2012 interview with Marija Matešić, freelance digital analyst and strategist from Croatia, which appears in her new e-book Infographics Through Samples, available here.

- - - -

Would you like to introduce yourself? How did you become interested in information graphics?

I am a 25-year veteran of the newspaper business. I began my career at the Montgomery Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1980s as an illustrator and news artist and was in on the ground floor of the Macintosh revolution in newspaper graphics. I like to think that the news graphics business and I have grown up together.

- - - -

Who influenced your work and what was the most exciting project you've been working on?

I am primarily a product of the great Philadelphia Inquirer news art department of the mid- to late 1990s. Much of that department has now gone on to form the core of the current New York Times and San Diego Union-Tribune graphics departments. The colleagues who have mainly inspired and influenced my work are Bill Marsh and Matt Ericson of the Times, John Duchneskie and Kevin Burkett of the Inquirer, Michael Price at the Union-Tribune — although this list leaves out many important names as well. I have also drawn inspiration from the diagrammatic work of Stephen Biesty and David MacAulay.

I was called upon to use just about every skill I have in our recent retrospective on the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's orbital spaceflight aboard Friendship 7. I conducted a lengthy interview with Glenn himself, and then used information from that interview as well as many hours of independent research and reporting to explain the spacecraft and the flight in a full-page infographic and accompanying video.

- - - -

What would be the easiest way to explain information graphics? How does the creation process look like and which parties are usually involved?

Any visual display of information, number data or map information can be called (or made part of) an information graphic. There are many types of information that can be presented visually, and so there are many different types of information graphics. These mainly break down into three types: Cartography (maps,) charts, and my own particular specialty, diagrammatic graphics.

In a newspaper newsroom, an information graphic begins with a visuals editor seeing a story and identifying which parts of that story can best be told visually. And there is almost always some aspect of the story that will benefit from visual storytelling.

At that point, a news artist is assigned and gets together with the reporter on the story. The two work closely together to make sure that the written story and the visual agree and complement each other. Many times, especially with stand-alone graphics (graphics that run on their own, without an accompanying story), the news artist IS the reporter.

The news artist then coordinates with the page designer (and online editors) to fine-tune the completed presentation, so the graphic works with the layout, the photos etc. as a coordinated package.

- - - -

How would you explain "infographic madness" on the web lately?

News presentation was already moving in a visual direction - more graphics, smarter use of graphics - when the bottom fell out of the print newspaper business in the early 2000s. Readers were becoming accustomed to seeing information presented visually and were already getting out of the habit of wading through long-form written narratives. Graphics pioneers such as TIME magazine's great Nigel Holmes and Joe Lertola, among many others, had demonstrated how efficiently and authoritatively information could be presented in a graphic form.

There's been a huge recent proliferation of free online tools, tutorials and examples that makes it easier than ever for almost anyone to begin exploring this new medium. It's accessible and inviting - a good-looking graphic piques a viewer's curiosity and may keep him or her on the web site longer.

- - - -

Could you give your professional advice as an information graphics expert to tower infographics creators?

A slick, professional-looking information graphic is a very convincing thing. It is hard for many people to think that visuals can lie or be mistaken. It's therefore very easy for someone to slant a story, present deceptive or inaccurate information, deliberately or by mistake, and have web viewers accept it, re-post it, re-Tweet it.

But the average website does not come with a lot of built-in credibility.

If the New York Times, for example, publishes an error in a graphic, yes, a lot of people may believe the error because it's coming from the New York Times. And that's bad. But the Times will then go to great lengths to correct the error. And that correction carries the same weight of credibility as any other New York Times reporting. Readers know that Times news artists are held accountable for what they publish.

A normal web site does not enjoy this measure of public trust. Once one of their graphics is shown to be incorrect, or deceptive in some way — why would a reader ever trust that web site again? Word of mouth travels very fast, and the damage to the site's credibility could be permanent.

- - - -

What are the main criteria according to which tower infographics would be accepted by experts in this field?

- Clear citing of sources
- Clear explanation of what overall point the graphic is trying to make
- Visual taste and restraint and proper use of graphic devices (using bar charts vs. fever charts where appropriate etc.)
I'm inherently suspicious of anything being communicated to me visually unless I can clearly see who's doing the communicating and whether I'm being told the whole story. If I suspect a web site is manipulating me in some way, they've lost me forever.

- - - -

What is your vision of the future of digital infographics?

With greater technical sophistication will come a greater ability for the viewer to design his own experience within an interactive information graphic. You can see some examples of this online today, and when it works well it is an ideal model for the future of online visual journalism.
An interactive graphic can present a tremendous amount of information, the equivalent of pages and pages of a print newspaper, and can do so in an easily digestible form, IF the graphic is smartly designed to
- guide the viewer through it,
- make him curious about it,
- allow him some control over how the information is presented, and
- welcome his feedback.  
Publishing visual journalism in an electronic format on an iPad or tablet makes all this possible and opens up huge, exciting new vistas of opportunity for visual explanation and storytelling.

William Neff


An Apollo Lunar Module in Philly. Maybe.

CLICK TO SEE FULL-RES PHOTO... interesting study in scale, as well as just one damned unusual sight.

This is LTA (Lunar Test Article) 3, essentially a sheet-metal mockup of an Apollo Lunar Module built by NASA for weight, balance and structural tests to prepare for the moon landings. It's parked out back of the Franklin Institute, one of our favorite haunts during my years in Philadelphia.

Now, for years it was reported that the Module sitting at the Franklin Institute was LM-14, a spaceworthy Lunar Module originally intended to go to the Copernicus crater as part of the Apollo 20 mission. This would have suited me, if true, since the Command Module originally slated for Apollo 20 now sits at the Great Lakes Science Center here in Cleveland. I've crawled inside it. If I could get the Institute to allow me to visit the interior of this Lunar Module, then I would achieve the unusual feat of having stood in both ends of the canceled Apollo 20 moon mission.

It took some wheedling, but I was successful. As part of the reporting for this graphic, I was granted permission to join a couple of docents and follow in the footsteps of the 12 men who have walked on the moon, ascending that famous ladder and squeezing my way into a Lunar Module.

Once I was inside, however, it didn't take me long to realize that this was definitely not a flight article. It was strictly a mockup, and could never have been anything but a mockup.

With the, er, help of the NASA history office (who seemed to feel they had better things to do than help an annoyingly persistent reporter track down the provenance of decaying 3rd-rate Apollo hardware), I eventually was able to identify the craft as LTA-3 - a revelation that took the Franklin Institute's people by surprise as well.

The rumors persist that parts of this thing really are from LM-14. And that ascent stage, while it can't have been from a flight article, had to come from somewhere — because the Kansas City Cosmosphere makes a good case that they have the ascent stage of the real LTA-3. And while my dreams of completing the Apollo 20 Grand Tour have gone up in smoke, I console myself with having made a fascinating trip through the musty attic of Apollo history.



Dropping in on an old friend

Right-click the thumbnail to view the full-size image.I would never go to Washington D.C. without finding a way to work in a visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. There are so many old friends to visit:

  • The Apollo 11 command module Columbia;
  • LM-2, one of only three unused, flight-ready Apollo Lunar Modules in the world;
  • No fewer than four A7L spacesuits that actually walked on the moon, including the first (Neil Armstrong's) and the last (Eugene Cernan's);
  • One of only two surviving examples in the world of the Macchi C.202 Folgore, a WW2 Italian fighter that looks like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film come to life;

… and so many more.

But the trip would never be complete without a visit to the U.S.S. Enterprise shooting prop from the 1960s Star Trek series. It's located in a glass case on the lower level of the gift shop. It was worth the cacaphone and physical assault of misbehaving Spring Break schoolkids to spend a few minutes with the original starship of my youth.