Born in England, Nigel Holmes studied illustration at the Royal College of Art in London and then freelanced for magazines and newspapers for 12 years in London before going to New York in 1977 to work for Time Magazine. He became graphics director and stayed there for 16 years. He has written eight books on aspects of information design. The latest is Instant Expert, a sequel to The Book of Everything. (He knows that both titles are not to be taken too literally.) With his son Rowland, Holmes makes short animated films. Clients have included the TED conference, Fortune Magazine conferences, Good Magazine and the National Geographic Society.
In this conversation, Nigel discusses his keynote at the upcoming Presentation Summit 2015 series.
Geetesh: Nigel, you are doing a keynote this year at the Presentation Summit called Lighten Up, Will Ya??: The role of humor in presentations. Can you tell us more about this session, and what takeaways can the audience expect?
Nigel: I’ve always believed that if you can make people smile when you are trying to explain something, you are halfway to helping them understand exactly what it is you are trying to explain. And that’s because if your listeners are in a good mood, they are much more receptive. But it’s not enough to tell a funny joke at the start of a presentation, and then drone on about leveraging a new vertically integrated paradigm by empowering scalable best practice ecosystems (oh, please drop corporate jargon!). However, I’m not advocating that you aspire to be a stand-up comedian; in this presentation I’ll be extending the idea of “humor” to include its old-fashioned meaning: being in a good humor…with good feelings and emotions.
Most of my work has been explaining difficult concepts, whether medical, or scientific (or just complicated, in any field), and also helping people put large numbers into an understandable context. During the presentation I’ll play music, include some examples of bad design, and show ways to include audience participation: to get you out of your chairs (and possibly your comfort zones).
This 2,500-year-old quote from Confucius sums it up pretty well:
“Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.”
Geetesh: You’ve been an inspiration to so many others as far as design is concerned – can you share thoughts on what a design trend signifies, and should one try and keep oneself updated?
Nigel: I had a great shop window at Time Magazine. I went there before computers, or the internet as we know it today, but Time’s readership was huge and lots of people saw what I did in the field of information graphics. But all I was really doing was carrying on a great illustrative tradition of the magazine, and of Fortune, another magazine in the Time Inc. stable, that had started in the 30s with wonderful reader-friendly, illustrated, graphic explanations of, for instance, the progress of WW2. (Everything that the maps and charts department created was carefully kept in large albums.) When Walter Bernard, the art director who changed the face of the magazine, invited me to work with him in 1977, he championed my illustrated style (sometimes in the face of opposition from some of Time’s more entrenched editors), giving me more space on the page than had previously been given to graphics. Soon we were copied by, most notably, USA Today, which was launched in 1982. The trouble was that while I might have been doing five or six pieces a week, the designers at USA Today were doing twice as many as that every day, and they didn’t have the requisite time to check and consider their work…some of them were copying the look of my stuff, but not the substance. (I had a dedicated team of researchers and an assistant: what luxury!)
But things change; by the late 80s, I had moved up the masthead and was urging the magazine to move away from the kind of highly illustrated charts that I was doing, towards a more straightforward style. Editors hated it. “So now we’re going to have boring charts?” they complained. No, we are going to take the readers more seriously, was my reply. They don’t need as much titillation to get them to read nowadays. But I felt that my time was running out there; after 16 years I resigned and they hired a graphics editor who was an expert in highly-rendered 3-d graphics. After a few years, the magazine was again redesigned and the 3-d graphics were replaced by a starkly minimal style. So in the space of about twenty years there were three distinctly different graphic trends.
Should a designer keep up with all the trends? My answer lies in the beautiful work of a team working in the 1930s. Otto Neurath, his wife Marie, and Gerd Arntz produced information graphics that look as modern today as they did when they were made. Although drawn by hand, they would fit perfectly into the computer age. Much of my work is influenced by their ideas about statistical accountability, and their use of pictures to attract readers. The “good humor” that their work engendered in their intended audiences was contagious. Some trends shouldn’t be messed with! (But yes, you should keep up to date with what everyone is doing—just don’t copy it!)
What is the Presentation Summit?
For many years now, Rick Altman has been hosting the Presentation Summit, a highly popular event that is geared towards users of PowerPoint and other presentation platforms.
Date: September 27 to 30, 2015
Location: Astor Crowne Plaza, New Orleans, USA