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 moving to New York in 1978 to work for Time Magazine. He became graphics director and stayed there for 16 years. Since 1994 he has run his own business, Explanation Graphics, explaining all sorts of things for a variety of clients and publications. These have included American Express, Scientific American, National Geographic and the New York Times.
In this interview, Nigel discusses his new book, Crazy Competitions: 100 Weird and Wonderful Rituals from Around the World.
Geetesh: Nigel, can you tell us about your new book, Crazy Competitions: 100 Weird and Wonderful Rituals from Around the World. What motivated you to write this book, and what can readers take away?
Nigel: I’m calling it a new book because it’s my latest, but it actually came out in May. As to what inspired it, there were two wonderfully odd events that lodged in my imagination: Cheese Rolling in England, and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York City. I had done graphics about both of these, and I showed them to my friend Julius Wiedemann of Taschen, the German publisher. He told me they’d need 100 examples to make a whole book, and it was surprisingly easy to find that number of crazy things that people do worldwide.
Some are actual contests with prizes for the winners, some are magnificent parades, some have religious origins, and some are just silly summer fun. And some seem to be so incredible that you can hardly believe they actually take place. To test readers’ credulity, I made up one of the 100 events, complete with its own website. No one—apart from the publisher—has guessed which one it is. Yet.
Julius, and a researcher, Chris Mizsak, and I compiled the list of events, then I wrote the text and drew the images both at the same time, delivering a single file of each spread to Taschen’s main office in Cologne, Germany, starting in September 2015, and finishing a year later in 2016. Production, and translation of the text into separate editions in German and French, took much longer than anyone thought, so publication was delayed. This allowed me to update a couple of the events, including the Hot Dog Eating Contest, where the record number of Hot Dogs consumed by the winner went up from 70 in 2016—to 72 eaten in 2017. (But oh dear, it went up again this year, to 74. Imagine eating 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes!)
Humor is very important to me, and keeping that sense of humor in translation is partly why the publication was delayed: Taschen rejected the first German translation they commissioned as being too literal and word-for-word. Also, German is a “longer” language than English, so many adjustments had to be made to the layout of the text and images.
Throughout, I tried to vary the images and the style of drawing, so the work never became constraining for me during the year it took, but much more importantly, so that it kept the reader’s interest. The idea of “pacing” the spreads where some are quieter, some have lots of white space, some are dark, some light, and so on, comes straight from my career in magazines. Surprising the audience visually is as important in books and magazines as it is in making live presentations.
I’m hoping that Crazy Competitions will reach a larger audience than some of my other how-to books, which were intended for information graphic designers. This one can almost be viewed as a travel book, just with odd reasons for the trips!
Geetesh: Why are rituals important? Some presenters say rituals while presenting help audiences increase the recall value of their messages. Do you agree?
Nigel: The rituals described in my book are a way of preserving long-held customs…something like: “we’ve done this for years and it’s a success, so let’s keep doing it.” I suppose this idea is the same as not reinventing the wheel every time you do something. Thinking like that, rituals are very important when making presentations: you must keep your audience listening, and some of what you are saying and showing should be familiar. If it isn’t, your audience may think you are not really talking to them, not really taking their needs into consideration. In presentations, the audience is the most important part: are you connecting with them? Do they understand you?
But rituals in the way a presentation itself is delivered can be really helpful. If you follow a path that is familiar, your audience will be able to relax into understanding: first, introduce them briefly to what they are going to see and hear in your presentation; then, show and tell; finish with a summary of what you have told them. This isn’t a new idea of mine…it’s an old ritual!