Infographics and the IPCC Report - An Interview with Nigel Hawtin
Nigel was the Information Graphics Editor and my boss at New Scientist magazine. During his 20 Years at Britain’s most popular science magazine, he also freelanced at a variety of places including Time Magazine, NERC, Oxford and Cambridge University Press and Harper Collins newspapers and Magazine UK & Worldwide.
Since 2014 he’s been running his own business working for, amongst others, the IPCC and UN, EMCDDA, Europol and many other EU agencies, CRC Research, Singapore Civil Service College, Singtel, The Guardian, Scientific American, Nature, BBC World, The BTO, Global Carbon Project, Spectrum News.
I have so many questions for Nigel around information design and creativity but I first want to talk about his recent work on the 2021 IPCC Report. If you’re like me, you opened the IPCC report on climate change, the Scientific Summary section or were sent the FAQ section, and went straight to the infographics that Nigel and members of WG1 created over the past 18 months. They just might be some of the most important infographics I’ve ever seen.
Firstly, I’d like to ask you about the process. What are the steps you go through for each of these information graphics? Do you start with just the data and a brief? As you develop the design how many people see them and give you feedback?
On this report, and to the same extent, the last 1.5 report which I also worked on, the process was similar even if the final graphic started out from different sources. I obviously had a fair few zoom and telephone calls with a couple of the key members of the team (Sophie Berger and Sarah Connors), my points of contact, to discuss what we were about to do. It was decided that each FAQ was to have at least one graphic, and in a couple of cases, more than one. The reason to have the graphic was to explain in a more easily understandable way, what that particular chapter was about - so really it was a summary graphic explaining to a non-expert reader some quite complex ideas and explanations.
Some of the FAQ graphics came in as sketches and ideas from the authors and scientific experts, some as previously used/generated graphics and some were really just an idea between IPCC staff and myself as to what would be a good way to summarise the FAQ! The graphics I worked on in the report as well as the Technical Summary all worked in the same collaborative way.
Which ever format they started out as, the first thing I did was to immerse myself in the copy. Then read and re-read and ask lots of questions until I was satisfied I had enough knowledge to be able to understand it and visualise it. It was only then that I could start.
The sketched ideas were then edited/adjusted and commented on and eventually approved by the IPCC staff in conjunction with the experts and scientists.
Once everybody was happy with the concept, which would generally be a pencil sketch (sometimes a coloured version for particular clarity and emphasis) I went ahead and drew up a graphic to a reasonably finished state. This would then be sent over to the experts for more comments, corrections and suggestions. This process could involve a couple of steps or many! Often or not, many steps!
We looked and tried many ways of what and how to portray the information and I sketched many variants of each graphic. These were passed across the teams for discussion and were either adopted, revised or ‘held’ as ideas for later. All in all, it was a really intense way of working but was helped by the superb efforts of the IPCC team I was working with, they ‘filtered’ many of the comments between myself and the experts and kept the project on time and on course! It was a really collaborative effort - which I think works well and hopefully shows in the finished visuals. I would expect to see minor changes (updated data) before the final versions are released!
What roles do you think infographics play in the IPCC report?
Everybody knew that visuals were a very important part of the report, the FAQ sections and the Scientific Summary sections, but it really begins to show in this and the previous report. We really tried to come together and work more closely from the outset, rather than thinking about the graphic elements at a later stage. The great comments from others in the scientific communities as well as the wider general audience has reinforced the point that the visuals are a vital element in getting the point and the messages out to the world. This should continue with reports to come and I expect to see more innovation and even better graphics and data visualisations to come.
It’s a very stark and complex read. You’ve managed to retain clarity using strong text and visual editing and colour choices. What are the creative and design formal elements that flow through all your work to help you achieve this?
It’s vitally important not to forget what you are showing, why, and to whom. That is the reason you are working on a visual in the first place - informing and explaining the information, the process, the data etc. We are here trying to make it easier to take the information on-board and understand it and take action on that data. We use simplicity, when appropriate, clarity of information and ease of understanding and we do try and guide the reader using visual cues as well as words…both of these elements are as important as each other in a graphic and must work together not against each other - this includes the titles and explanatory text. Colour, style and text consistency is vital.
You’ve spent 18 months with this data. How has it made you feel about the future of the human race?
We don’t have a perfect world and there are many obstacles to get over or around, but I do think we will rise to the many challenges we face and will do what we can, individually as well as nationally, and think we will find the technologies needed to help us to keep this beautiful planet safe.
More generally, if you’re a graphic designer who would like to work in this important space what advice would you give them?
Understand why you are producing the graphic and to whom. Think of what your audience wants to see and know about, and make sure the finished graphic is doing its job. Listen to the experts and ask questions. Keep questioning even if it seems like a very simple or basic question that you think you know the answer to…sometimes you will be surprised…and so, sometimes to, will the experts! Look and learn from others around you - try new things, much is trial and error and most importantly enjoy what you do.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I get my inspiration from many sources. It could be from the countryside around me (I love walking and nature) from old books, from walking around art galleries and, of course, from what others are doing around me in the same or similar fields. You never know when that next aha! moment will come. I sketch and take notes all the time, photograph things that I like the look of - could be colour, pattern, style or something else.
I follow and look at many other publications and websites from all around the world - it’s important to keep up and look at what others are doing, we are always learning- and I am always very interested to see what new designers come up with. It is also important to take a critical look at others works and see if there is something you have seen on that brilliant graphic that you could improve upon.
I take a look back at work I was producing 10 years ago ( http://nigelhawtin.com/10-years-ago/ ) and critique that - it’s very interesting for me to see what I was doing but also good to see what I did well and not so well or even just to see what the design trends were at the time.