Infographics post #5 : an interview with German designer Martin Oberhäuser, who lives and breathes infographics.
Martin Oberhäuser is a Hamburg-based designer who has specialised in information design from the get-go.
When Jude, one of our designers, showed me his brilliant work for German encyclopedia Brockhaus, I decided to ring him up for a chat about his work and information design in general.
How did the Brockhaus project come about?
I think their creative director had seen my work and they approached me and asked me to work on it. They were publishing 11 print volumes, but I didn’t do all the graphics – only the hero pieces. They sent me spreadsheets and pdfs of data and pretty much let me do what I wanted. It was an ideal setup – the data was already in good shape, and some of the infographics – like the first ascent of the world’s highest mountains – took less than a day to design. The data wasn’t very abstract, so it was easy to find a way to put them on the page.
Unfortunately, it was a one-off for me. Printed encyclopedias like Brockhaus are a thing of the past now.
How do you deal with data that’s not so easy to visualize?
Sometimes that means grappling with your data and poking and kneading it. You can’t just dump data on a page and hope it’ll look like something. And often there’s a lot of hard math involved, to bring out the relevance and readability.
There’s a big element of authorship in information design – the way you choose to present your data will steer readers in a certain direction. But you’ve got to be aware of the limits to how objective you can be.
How did you become an information designer?
That started out quite early, while I was at uni. I realised early on that I’m not the kind of designer who’ll come up with a hip album cover for you – I’m at my best when I’ve got a problem to solve. And it seems I’ve always gravitated towards data-heavy stuff.
After I’d graduated, I went to San Francisco and worked at Method, a digital agency, as an interface designer.
And I realized that it has a lot in common with information design: in both cases you’re dealing with complex information structures – in one case you need to make it readable, in the other readable AND usable.
What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m doing a lot of data visualization projects that use real-time data.
Tickr is a project of mine – it’s a business dashboard that provides the C-level with an overview of relevant business data.
The big challenge here is the frame of reference – a printed infographic is static, so you can work to a fixed scale. With real-time data, you have to allow for big variations. So you need to figure out how to present the data well while using a flexible scale. But the basic approach is the same.
We’ve been talking a lot about dynamic data visualization, when originally, I’ve been meaning to ask you more about the static, printable sort of infographic…
I still do those as well! But it’s indeed an exciting thing: A few years ago, data was the domain of techies. Today, it has become a much bigger deal for the decision-makers. And they need up-to-date, well-presented data that points them right to the issues. A spreadsheet can’t do that, and that’s why dashboards are booming right now.
But there is still a space for the static, printed stuff. And in a way it’s nice to work on – it gives me a break from the challenges of dynamic data.
Can you talk a little about the process of creating an infographic? How do you go about it?
It’s similar to the way you approach any creative work. You start with an idea and when you find out it doesn’t work, you’ve got to come up with something else.
The difference is that with infographics you’ve got to be very strict with yourself and kill your babies a lot. Ask yourself: Is the graphic really driven by data? If not, there’s probably a better way. I often have to make a deliberate decision against a solution that would be more interesting from a design point of view.
And that means not being afraid of resorting to traditional ways of showing your data, even if they’re not the most innovative. Sometimes, a bar chart is simply the best way of getting your point across. And some kind of esoteric visualization that nobody gets wouldn’t do as good a job. It’s also the reason why you’ll find a certain color palette in my work. They’re colors that are easy to grasp and tell apart.
Does it become easier with time to know what shape is best for your data?
It does. The more you do it, the more routine you get. And that means you kind of know what’s feasible and what isn’t.
Many people have opinions on infographics, what they are and what they should be. What’s your definition?
An infographic is a translation of data into a visualisation that adds value. It points right to the issue – and ideally, it makes visible something you hadn’t seen before.
Infographics are probably farthest away from art on the art-design spectrum. I think the key to creating a good one is being genuinely interested in your data and really delving into what it means. If you don’t do that, your work becomes merely illustrative.
Whose work do you admire? Have you got any visualization heroes?
There’s lots of people who do great work.
I also really like Dann Petty, a San-Francisco-based interaction designer.
But by far one of my biggest idols has been Robert Murdock. He was my creative director at Method. An excellent designer, truly inspiring, and a great person.
Martin Oberhäuser’s work:
Stadtistik is his graduation piece. The idea: There are cities that instinctively feel like home, whereas others don’t. Stadtistik tries to quantify that hunch by turning statistics about different German cities into visuals. See more here.
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