Not Just Black and White: Graham Roberts and Visual Storytelling at The New York Times

by Heather Miller
- Dec 2 2014 - 6 min read
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"Inside the Quartet" image courtesy of Graham Roberts. © The New York Times.

Fresh out of college and pounding the pavement for animation jobs, Graham Roberts couldn’t foresee a career at The New York Times. Or end up producing graphics and digital experiences for Pulitzer Prize and Peabody Award-winning articles. But it happened.

Originally focused on finding his way at an animation or game studio, Roberts’ chance meeting with a Newsweek reporter sent him down a decidedly different path. One graphics internship at Newsweek later and the journalism bug bit. He was officially hooked.

Now, after more than eight years at The New York Times, Roberts is a senior graphics editor and works with a team of visual storytellers to bring information to life. Gone are the days of relying solely on 2D graphics. 3D now rules the digital experiences of 21st-century newspaper reporting.

“Projects that allow me the opportunity to explain something through visual language that would otherwise go unseen are always my favorite,” Roberts says. “I love taking data and using it to create a compelling story that reveals a topic and presentation readers have likely never seen before.”

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Image from a motion graphic for “The Invisible Child” longform project, demonstrating income inequality across New York City through extruded block groups based on median income. Courtesy of Graham Roberts. © The New York Times.

For example, Roberts recently published “Inside the Quartet,” which explores the subtle ways string quartet members communicate when they perform. He and his team recorded a performance by the iconic Kronos Quartet using depth cameras (Microsoft Kinects), capturing each musician as data that they then rendered into “a kind of dot cloud.”

“Each musician’s ‘dot cloud’ was connected to what they were individually playing, so they would appear and disappear along with their contributions to the music,” Roberts explains. “Autodesk Maya was used to handle and render this data, along with a third-party particle system I added on called Partio.”

It’s All About the Story

For Roberts, his approach doesn’t start out with design first, and it’s certainly not just about creating graphics. It begins with the story and solid reporting. He believes it’s important to realize that each member of the graphics department is a journalist as much as anyone on another, more traditional news desk.

“When covering the rebuilding of Ground Zero for ‘Up (and Down) from Ground Zero,’ I was underground with the workers and architects, seeing firsthand what progress was being made, collecting materials, and asking the questions that would help me tell the best visual story for our readers to understand what was going on,” Roberts says. “We work with reporters and editors on a daily basis. The importance of data and visual storytelling is something understood throughout the organization, so reporters on other desks might help us gather data that will be used only in a graphic, or share elements of their reporting that may never make it into the written article.”

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“Up (and Down) from Ground Zero” image courtesy of Graham Roberts. © The New York Times.

So when Roberts approaches a project, he asks one key question: “What are the most interesting elements of the story?”

Take for instance the digital experiences he helped create for “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Dramatic video interviews, an interactive flyover of the mountainous region, a digital representation of the snowfall type and timeline leading up to the avalanche, an accurate simulation of the avalanche itself, and much more contextualize and add even further depth and drama to the article.

“You want to use your skills as a journalist and as a storyteller to reveal the most interesting elements and not force readers to search for meaning,” he says. “Data analysis is something very particular to each story. I am lucky to work with some incredibly deft data analysts who are available to help scrape, capture, and process data sets into forms that I can then use to realize my ideas for storytelling.”

Roberts encourages choosing a story carefully, reporting and accumulating data, and then always creating a storyboard before beginning any design.

“Having written a script, collected all of your data and assets, decided on your angle and approach, it could be tempting to jump in and just start creating—don’t do it,” he explains. “I fight against this impulse with many projects myself. Storyboarding is an absolutely essential part of the process and will serve as the master guide for your piece.”

Learning and Teaching

Stemming from his serendipitous career opportunity, Roberts is passionate about sharing his knowledge of information design opportunities in journalism with other up-and-coming graphic designers and students.

Recently Roberts has taken to Skillshare to deliver training and inspiration on demand. In his first class, he brings students behind the scenes of his projects at The New York Times, detailing the tips and secrets to create a clear and compelling visual story.

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“Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” image courtesy of Graham Roberts. © The New York Times.

How do you even choose a story? Should it be a reading experience or include a voiceover instead? How do you create a hierarchy of data and information to keep the reader engaged? All of these questions and more are answered as he takes viewers step by step through several of his Times projects, including “Up (and Down) from Ground Zero,” on the rebuilding of the site; and Webby Award-winning “Held by the Taliban: Escape,” which details how kidnapped reporter David Rohde escaped from the Taliban.

Roberts also just released a new Skillshare video with an introduction to Maya—Academy Award-winning software best known for its use for visual effects and animation in movies—and how to apply it to information design. Students can download a free trial or even receive a full, free version of Maya if they qualify.

“I’ve seen a lot of Maya classes, a lot of journalism classes, and a lot of data visualization classes,” Roberts says. “But I wasn’t seeing any classes that brought these ideas together and demonstrated Maya’s value to journalists. Maya is an incredibly powerful tool, but it can also be intimidating. Since I’ve found it to be a great tool for journalism, I wanted to create a class in Maya specifically targeted to journalists and visual storytellers.”

And for anyone interested in pursuing this possible career, Roberts offers three key pieces of advice:

1. Be True to the Story. Make sure that your visual and aesthetic decisions ultimately serve to clarify and to reveal, and are not merely decorative.

2. Don’t Fear Code. You don’t have to know everything about a language to use code to your advantage, and it will only make you more creative.

3. Consider Telling Stories About Things That Are Not Necessarily Naturally Interesting to You. If you can find something more fundamental about the topic that is interesting to you, you’re likely to have good luck interesting a general audience in the story as well.

Yes, even animators can find their true calling at The New York Times.

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