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Introduction to the Generic Visuals in the News project through Existing Data Sets II.


Thinking about visuals

by Camilla Mørk Røstvik : 

Throughout the data sets we examined, concepts of ‘good taste’, beauty, and style appeared frequently. Ambitions for data visualisation and stock photography was often high, although a solid dose of pragmatism was also needed. Balancing the visually arresting with information is a difficult and precise skill that requires thinking about diverse audiences and their levels of visual literacy.

While information and clarity were core values for creators, many also wanted to talk about beauty. A notoriously difficult concept to define, interviewees had strong instincts about what worked. They seemed to have honed their intuition to work quickly and effectively, whether in the case of an especially plump pie chart or a striking model in a photograph.

Yet, beauty had to be compromised at many stages. Mobile and multi-medium content creation could make images droopy and strange, stock photography could be cropped or altered in Photoshop, and the application of text could change the content of an image completely.

Throughout, realism was the only accepted style. Abstraction, surrealism or avant-garde styles of visual culture were likely to be rejected. The focus on realism means striking a balance between clarity, glossiness and even kitsch. Stock photographers cringed at images they considered ‘cheesy’, and celebrated work that showed a ‘real world’ where everyone looked relatively content, yet acknowledged that ‘the cheese’ could sometimes be the magic ingredient for a viral moment (Women laughing with salad, Jealous girlfriend, etc.). Although images might relate to serious topics such as racism and sexism, they could not be gritty or crass. In the world of stock photography, even hate crimes tend to look good. Caught somewhere in between the visual languages of advertising and visual arts, this specific mode of creative work invoked both feelings of grimy commercialism and skilled image making.

Furthermore, creators were often constrained by context. For example, data visualisers working on Brexit stories needed to develop a consistent politically ‘objective’ look, and those preparing packages of content for several news outlets had to consider the various audiences without changing the style too much. Thus, variation was often sacrificed for a uniform, serious style where distinct colours, fonts and types of graphs and image dominate. One interviewee likened this to Darwin’s theory of evolution, in which some formats survive due to their popularity and others (like maps) disappear over time.

Clearly, makers of ‘generic visuals’ have a lot to balance. Their unique skills render them expert communicators, readers of future trends, and anonymous creative workers in a time of intense image proliferation. Their work is not easy, and our project is invested in documenting and analysing this specific set of skills.