A great new project by Irish designer Stephen McCarthy is one of the more interesting and thought-provoking graphic design projects i’ve seen in a long time. The project is being undertaken as part of Stephen’s Postgraduate study at London College of Communication. His aim is to reduce press headlines into simple pictograms. The results are intriguing, thought-provoking and effective .
Photography’s pivotal role in journalism and journalistic storytelling is undisputable . The role of graphic storytelling within a journalistic context however is much less pivotal and much less explored. One potential reason for this is that photography presents images that happened, while illustration and graphics are made after the fact and are therefore ‘artists impressions’ rather than evidence.
This is of course a rather 1-dimensional view of how graphic storytelling could play an important role in the journalistic process. Satirical illustration of course has long held an important position in the lampooning of po faced posturing by newsworthy figures to good effect.
So what other roles, if any, could visual and graphic storytelling play within journalism? Stephen’s project brought to mind a body of editorial work (and favourite of mine in general) that makes exceptional use of illustrative and graphic images to deepen understanding, or perhaps engagement, with subject matter. This is the New York Times op-ed and op-art illustrations . Pairing talented graphic designers and artists with columnists, and in the case of op-art creating a platform for visual storytelling in it’s own right. The results are always engaging and quite often powerful. While some set a tone or provide a more descriptive approach, the most effective to my mind are graphic in the truest sense – direct, immediate, impactful. They do what the best headlines do, and more. Not only can they synopsise the content of the story, they can also bring it to life and create engagement in a way not possible with just words.
This particular approach works well because it places these strong visual statements within the opinion context. Using the same approach within a breaking news context would undermine the honesty of the story by focussing on a visual that presents a ‘point-of-view’ rather than a cold hard stare. However, as we enter what seems to be an age of information curation, where breaking news is delivered in 140 characters or less, maybe the role of visual storytelling will find some new space.
The New York Times is well ahead of the curve, not just in the Opinion section but across the board. They boast a dedicated department of 25 visual journalists who work to create maps, diagrams and information graphics that add context, depth and insight to the written story (have a look here, here and here). While this can provide transformative story support within traditional printed media, it offers a whole new world of possibilities on digital platforms.
The possibilities for visual, interactive journalism are just starting to be explored. Along with NYT, the Guardian is also dedicated to exploring the possibilities offered, from simple interactive slideshows to amazingly immersive timelines. It’s not just these Journalistic giants that are forging the way, new ways to present facts and stories are popping up on websites and apps every day.
While digital media seems to have provided a platform for graphic design and storytelling to play a bigger role in communicating the news, you can also see this new alliance in a new generation of hybrid periodicals such as Monocle , Bloomberg BusinessWeek , Good  and Seed (Businessweek also have a great Flickr resource of their covers and graphics). These exploit both printed and digital media, playing to their individual strengths. To do so effectively the visual aspect of what they do plays as important a role as the verbal. As we’re swept away in a torrent of information, these progressive publications have realised what designers have always known, that the presentation of the information isn’t an added extra, it differentiates, clarifies and engages.
What Stephen’s project reminded me though, was that as well as the organisation and presentation of information, the possibility of graphic and visual journalism is waiting to be explored.