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