Interview with Graphics Editor Jennifer Daniel: "I like it fast, dirty, impulsive, and a little sexy..."

Interview with Graphics Editor Jennifer Daniel: SUTTONSIGNER.jpgBy Ward Sutton

From Design to Illustration to Animation, Jennifer Daniel does it all and does it all well in the world of graphics. As the graphics director at Bloomberg Businessweek she was a driving force of that magazine's visual voice (and groundbreaking imagery and design). She's currently a graphics editor at The New York Times in the San Francisco bureau covering technology and culture, and has a new kids book with Simon Rogers, Information Graphics: Space.

Jennifer maintains a smart (and often hilarious) online presence, she recently transplanted from NYC to Oakland, and, oh yeah, she gave birth to twins. Somehow she carved out yet some more time for me to interview her about the many ways she works.

WARD SUTTON: Graphics Creator, Illustrator, Designer... You have a myriad of talents. Is there one area you like working in best? Or do you enjoy the variety of creating in multiple ways?

JENNIFER DANIEL: I think most people see their paths as linear and it took me a long time to realize to stop treating illustration and journalism as separate things. I don't distinguish one from the other. Sometimes the approach is journalism, the execution is illustration. Other times I approach an assignment as a journalist but the final result is graphic design. By experimenting more internally, that diversity in range will have a good long-term effect. I don't think these skills are exclusive to certain skill sets and when you mix it up, you create something new.

WARD SUTTON: You are clearly media savvy and have a rich web presence. How do you see this connecting to the work that you do?

JENNIFER DANIEL: Aw jeeze Ward, I think my newborn twins have gotten more likes then anything else I've made. I just do what the "Social Media For Dummies" book tells me to do. On one hand, the internet has built my career, on the other, images have become merely another type of online social currency. "He is not engaging with his social media appropriately" is a thing I hear more and more with less and less sarcasm.

Jenniferdaniel_obama.jpgWARD SUTTON: I was a judge for SPD a few years back, and the infographics category made some of our eyes start to glaze over. It really reinforced to me how challenging it must be to create unique and engaging infographics. You are not only good at it, you seem to have a passion for it. How do you approach these types of projects?

JENNIFER DANIEL: Most people think graphics editors pick up numbers given to them and make it look good but that's not quite how it works. It's just as much about being aware of what information you have as it is about being asking what information should you have. The ability to ask good questions is really what any good graphics editor starts with.

jenniferdaniel_geoduckslg.jpgYou don't have to have a background in statistics, graphic design, cartography, or programming to make good graphics. I never read [Edward] Tufte. I don't have a formal background in ~*charts*~ so I'm not beholden to the rules of chart making. That means I'm always humbled, always insecure, always a little fucking up, but it also allows me to experiment and ask dumb questions other people are afraid to ask.

WARD SUTTON: You've created a lot of animated graphics in recent years. How did you develop this?

JENNIFER DANIEL: Who has the time to read long form journalism about ultimate fighting, never mind 5,000 words hyped up on interactive steroids? (Actually, I'd probably read that.) I think there are appropriate topics and times for those pieces, but on a day-to-day basis I'm experiencing the web on my phone in one hand and two babies in the other hand. I just don't have the level of investment required to experience an interactive graphic like I used to. So, to answer your question, I suppose the appeal of animated graphics instead of interactive ones stems from how I use the internet. If it sparks my curiosity, I like it fast, dirty, impulsive, and a little sexy...

WARD SUTTON: From my perspective, gifs and vines still seem more in the domain of social media and sites like Buzzfeed, while more traditional news sites seem to stick to either photos or videos. Do you see animated graphics growing in popularity in the future?

JENNIFER DANIEL: As much as the olds loathe to admit it, animated gifs have become part of our language. First it was textisms (LOL, TTYL), then syntax ("That moment when" memes), and now it's iconography again only instead of heiroglyphics it's emojis and animated gifs. Buzzfeed and Twitter don't own gifs and vines. I wonder if this style of writing will get dated soon (see: reaction gifs) but there is something the past 10 years leetspeak evolution has taught us--all of these are merely stylized ways to express our feelings no matter how incoherent they are.

tumblr_mslxeriB5x1qbxy2ao1_r1_1280.jpgWARD SUTTON: I like how your site features some excellent examples of your work that happen to have been killed. Does this happen to your work often?

JENNIFER DANIEL: At The New York Times, it's always about the idea. Illustrations are killed on the basis of message, not aesthetics. Editors couldn't care less whether a drawing was woodcut or an animated 3-D blingee gif. It can look radical but conceptually be quite harmless. So, yeah, if you're trying to push too hard, killed work can be part of the job. I used to proudly wave the "killed work" flag, I even had a website dedicated to it. But what good is clinging to something that isn't working? Each idea isn't a unique snowflake and I've grown to appreciate that old ideas have a way of coming back.

That being said, the Times publishes the most compelling artwork, and arguably the best of illustration is coming out of the Opinion and Sunday Review pages.

Daniel cartoon.jpgWARD SUTTON: Given your visual talent, your sense of humor, and your ability to be provocative (both in your work and online), have you ever considered cartooning?

JENNIFER DANIEL: Oh god, I love reading alternative comics but that doesn't mean I should make them, right? At this point I'm just grateful I'm in a position to hire people to make them. I like the idea of writing and drawing simultaneously and the popularity of illustrated explainers for children gets me tingly but that may be as close as I get to cartooning. Who knows though, I have no idea where I'm going or if I'll get there.

WARD SUTTON: If you could completely revamp one magazine or online media entity, what would it be?

JENNIFER DANIEL: Buzzfeed. The great gnu media company. They do so much right and so much wrong and that's the point--they take risks and aren't afraid of doing something serious or something dumb and everything in between. Yet, how you experience the website hasn't evolved in the same way as their editorial ambitions. They rely mostly on lists, gifs, and heavy long form text to tell stories, which is extremely limiting. A little creative direction could add a dimension to the stories they want to tell -- emotional or intellectual -- that the story isn't (or can't) do itself. And that's the sign of a good redesign -- it isn't just about the design, it's about the strength of the ideas and how they are expressed with the typography and pictures and graphics.

Jennifer Daniel Website

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