“GOOD” Design

Kevin Nguyen speaks to the folks responsible for GOOD Magazine‘s infographics.

We always found that there’s info lurking behind everything in the world,” says Morgan Clendaniel, deputy editor at GOOD Magazine. “You’ll read an article, but you won’t see the data behind it — nor would you want to. Nobody wants to read an Excel file.”

Clendaniel and I are discussing GOOD‘s Transparency section — a regular print and online feature of standalone infographics. The general interest magazine best known for its social consciousness has published infographics on a number of topics, some serious (fuel efficiency between modes of transportation, a map of international legislation on death penalty), others more playful (relative trophy sizes, museum ticket prices).

“The goal is to illustrate these issues in a way that is entertaining, accessible, but also informative,” Clendaniel says.

The Largest Bankruptcies in History, by Always With Honor; courtesy of GOOD.

The Largest Bankruptcies in History, by Always With Honor; courtesy of GOOD.

The word infographic brings to mind space-filling diagrams or charts from TIME, or maybe one of those awkward Snapshots features you saw in the corner of a USA Today the last time you stayed in a cheap hotel. In most cases, infographics exist to support a longer articles or report data too trivial to demand a more thorough analysis. But GOOD‘s Transparencies are intentionally self-sufficient, requiring no further reading. While the purpose of infographics is often to visualize numerical patterns and evidence, the Transparencies not only illustrate but illuminate.

“The idea is that you don’t have to read an article. You can become an expert just by looking at it.”

And it certainly doesn’t hurt that they’re beautiful. Each month, Clendaniel commissions some of the country’s top design talent to do three or four Transparencies to be published online weekly.

“We’ll have a bunch of data sets for them, talk about what we’re trying to say, then I tell them to go wild,” Clendaniel said. “They don’t get paid to do that very often, and that gets us some pretty fun results.”

No More Fish in the Sea, by Timko & Klick; courtesy of GOOD.

No More Fish in the Sea, by Timko & Klick; courtesy of GOOD.

One of those studios is Timko & Klick, which designed a handful Transparencies last May. Regularly, Timko & Klick do identities, websites, restaurants, and a number of other jobs suited to small, multidisciplinary design firms. Their contributions to GOOD included immigration rates in the shape of the American flag, a visual history of gay marriage legislation in the U.S., and a gorgeous graph of rapidly declining fish populations (shown above).

“Working for GOOD is always a bit of a treat, since you’re always dealing with subject matter that educates you in some new way,” said Thomas Porostocky, one half of Timko & Klick. He says that the challenge of designing Transparencies lays within the balance of complexity and accessibility.

“Make it too complicated, people can’t — or won’t — read it. Too simple, and people won’t even come to over to see what you have to offer,” Porostocky said. “You inevitably piss off one side or the other, so in the end, I go with whatever direction makes me happy.”

I spoke with Phil Lubliner, of Brooklyn-based design duo Fogelson-Lubliner. The firm tackles everything from books to websites to identities, and frequently contributes to The New York Times op-ed section. Lubliner explained that he enjoyed designing for GOOD for the creative challenge.

“We’ve always admired the way other designers had solved the challenges the Transparencies presented,” Lubliner said. “There’s something exciting about seeing an infographic that not only communicates the information, but does so in a way that engages the readers by adding more than just graphs and charts to the conversation.”

Infographics also present a dilemma for judicious readers. In an era of scientific fact, we’re expected to treat numerical data as objective. But as a discerning audience, we’ve also been raised to distrust statistics, based on the frequent manipulation of their presentation. But what if data sets were intentionally visualized with a specific opinion in mind?

“The goal is to not just present the information, but do it in a way that also adds some editorial point of view,” Lubliner said. “With a standard chart or graph, the tools you need to communicate the information already exist. That also creates a challenge when it comes to your readers, who already understand how to read a bar graph or a pie chart, but not necessarily understand how to look a photograph of people on the beach and deduce some kind of information from it. It comes down to getting the viewer to look at social issues in a different light, and that begins with how we visualize the information.”

Where Does Your Water Come From?, by Fogelson-Lubliner; courtesy of GOOD.

Where Does Your Water Come From?, by Fogelson-Lubliner; courtesy of GOOD.

The Transparency that Lubliner is talking about is actually one of my favorites (pictured above). Titled “A River Runs Near It,” the infographic illustrates where six major U.S. cities get their drinking water and how far away those sources are. But rather than use traditional or familiar infographic designs, Fogelson-Lubliner chose to photograph friends in colored hoodies, each one standing at different distances away from the camera to represent each water source.

“There was something nice about the cities who get their water from nearby, and something sort of inconvenient and unnatural about those whose water needs to travel great distances. Photographing a city like Chicago that gets its water from local sources was simple: you just had to stand right in front of the camera,” Lubliner said. “But a city like San Diego was a real inconvenience for our friend playing the roll of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. In order to represent the 444 miles that source is from the city, he had to walk all the way out to the ocean, take off his shoes, roll his pants up, and get in.”

The design of “A River Runs Near It” isn’t necessarily the most direct way Fogelson and Lubliner could have visualized the data, but in many ways their unconventional approach establishes a more remarkable, meaningful relationship with its audience. For GOOD readers who take the time to interpret the image, they’re more likely to remember what it represents, and understand its editorial angle; the use of photograph and Fogelson and Lubliner’s friends as subjects makes it less familiar, but more human.

There’s a movement among graphic designers who believe that good design is invisible. In many cases, that’s probably true, but I believe that GOOD‘s Transparencies are an example of how design can be overt, and better for it.

Though I had called Clendaniel about GOOD‘s Transparencies, it was hard not to ask about the magazine’s health, given that the publishing world currently looks something like the post-apocalyptic landscape of Fallout 3.

“Obviously, it’s a hard time to be a content company right now,” Clendaniel conceded. “But we’re in a strong position, and we’re going to be around for the conceivable future.”

Among its unconventional philosophies, GOOD Magazine has been using a suggested-donation business model (which, Clendaniel admits, was inspired by In Rainbows‘s pay-what-you-want model). In 2008, GOOD Magazine was a finalist in two categories for the National Magazine Awards design and magazine section (for the Transparency section, of course).

That’s not to suggest that strong design by itself can save the publishing world, but GOOD Magazine is certainly surviving and making a name for itself because of it.

You can find GOOD Magazine online. For more Transparencies, check out their Flickr set.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.