In this interview with Francis Gagnon, founder of Voilà, an information design consultancy, discover his insights into making compelling concept visualizations for his world-class clients.
(upbeat music) - Francis Gagnon is an information designer, and the founder of Voila, an information design agency in Montreal. Francis, thank you very much for joining me here today. - Thank you for having me. - So, Voila, I know when it started, or at some point in the past, it had a tagline, "Discover, Understand, "Communicate, Convince," which I thought was a great tagline. You know, the first three words are very common, this is what you have to do in information design. You have to discover something, understand it, and then communicate it. But that fourth word is interesting, convince, because in data visualization and information design, a lot of people are a little bit reluctant to say we're trying to convince people, but obviously advocacy organizations, this is a really important part of what you do. You're trying to convince people to do things, and I know that you spent time at the World Bank. I know you studied political science, and development studies, and so coming from that world, it totally makes sense that convince is part of it. But sort of seguing to something sort of slightly tangential to that, with that background, political studies, development studies, political science, those are not fields that tend to birth designers, and visually creative people, so I was wondering how you got from there into information design. - Yeah, that's a good question, Bill, and I get it sometimes, because my path to information design is very common, in that it's unique, (Bill laughing) and very few people, actually, come straight from college and know at 18 that this is what they want to do. In my case, I've always been interested in all things design, including graphic design, obviously, but also architecture, industrial design, and even clothing, these kind of things were always interesting to me, and so I studied my first year in college in communications. And then I switched to political science because I wanted to be a journalist at the time, but I couldn't write under deadline to save my life, so I had to find another path, but it got me interested very early on in design and communications aspect, so when I switched to political science I got to apply what I had learned, what I was interested in. I was doing the student newspaper. I was doing the websites for the teachers. I was doing posters, I was using my design skills, if you want, always in parallel. But I didn't really want to be a graphic designer because I was always interested in the analysis, in the content of things. So to me, it always stayed a hobby for a long time. Until, like in my early 30s, I think, I probably googled something like, "I hate Powerpoint," because I discovered "Powerpoint is Evil" by Edward Tufte, and beyond that pamphlet that he wrote, I discovered his body of work, and by the same token, information design. The fact that you could combine my two interests, being design, and analysis, and content. I didn't switch right way, though, into the field. I continued my career more in international development, economics, environment, these kind of things, and I moved to the World Bank in Washington where I worked for a few years. And after a few years, I actually, I was redesigning some reports because I was getting really upset at the way we were presenting the data, and the fact that it was hard in our decision meetings to even make sense of it. It was not really my responsibility, but someone saw what I was doing and asked me to do this full-time, and this was, if you will, my big break in information design because I got for two years to do nothing but redesign management reports, so design graphs that would help decision making. I remember, actually, telling a colleague that was quite blunt that I was going to do this, and she said, "Sounds quite boring." And I was so happy that she said that, (Bill laughing) because me, I had found my place, you know? I knew that I would have fun with this, and I knew that. And at the time, I was also finding my crowd, if you will. You know, the people like you that you meet online. A lot of us are lonely, or work alone in this field, (Bill laughing) but we meet around water coolers with the social media, so I was very happy at the time to have found something that I loved doing so much that combined my passions. And actually, I even say that, like, information design is not really what I like, it's who I am, because I've always had this analytical mind, if you want, of trying to understand why, and I've always had this interest in design, so it's something that comes naturally, this interest in information design for me. - Yeah, I love the way that you said that, that your story is very common, in that it's completely unique (laughs) in terms of how you got here, because it's true, and no one, actually, I shouldn't say no one, because I spoke with Federica Fragapane, and she actually studied information design. I think she might be the first person I've interviewed who actually studied information design. But yeah, most of us find our way here through random pathways. I actually did study journalism. But, you know, also the fact that this is who you are really resonates with me because I was in an airport recently and the sign announcing what time I was supposed to go to what gate, and it was like switching screens every three seconds. You couldn't catch up, and it was in Chinese and in English, and it was impossible. I was like, "This is horrible information design. "I must fix this." And I didn't, but I wish I had. - I must fix it, yeah, I know. I once, I think I was going to Tapestry in 2018, and my whole trip, I had the Twitter thread of just design things that I liked, or that I disliked, and information design, really. Like, how am I supposed to read this? Why is this here? Why is this one less clear than the other one that I saw? And I know what's going on in your brain. You know, it's constantly thinking how the information could be better organized to be better communicated. - Yeah, exactly, yeah. So let's talk a little bit about, you know, the purpose of our conversation today, specifically, is to talk about concept visualization. So, you know, you work with clients all the time. Sometimes it's doing data visualization, like the reports for the World Bank, there was a lot of data visualization, I'm sure. But one of the things is a very special, unique skill that people don't really talk enough about as its own thing is concept visualization. And so I wanted to just ask you to, if you can sum it up in one sentence, what is the trick to visualizing concepts? - Well, I would say that you need to find a visual that captures the essence of an idea, and ideally expands on it. Because really, the words are going to be there next to your visual, and it's not a rebus, it's not a puzzle that you're supposed to read the icon, the visual, and understand the whole idea. Really, the words are there, either like a couple of words, or full sentence next to it, so your visual is only going to be an anchor. So something that sort of helps to generate interest into an idea, or maybe something that's going to help memorize what's going on with the idea. And you know, it's also something that is there to beautify, to improve, to make the thing more aesthetically pleasing instead of just having columns and columns of text. So, you shouldn't try to be very figurative with it. You should try to find something that's going to just enlighten whatever wording you have next to it, just make it very clear, sharpen it, maybe expand it a little, maybe add in information that is a little further in the report but it is associated with the words. So, yeah, it's, as you can tell, it's as much art as science. - Yeah, no, that's great. And so, it's funny that the phrase that I always use is that the first rule in thinking visually is to not try to think visually. You don't try to rack your brain for the visual, you think of the idea. And so the way you phrase it, as think of the essence of the idea. I always think of it as sort of the metaphor, or however you want to think of it in words, you have to think of the idea first, and then the visual, if you're lucky, just comes to you. Or if not, then you're searching for a visual to match that idea, that metaphor, rather than try to match this word that someone has given you to visualize this concept. And it's sort of this, it sounds sort of a little bit vague, I think, when you first start thinking about it for some people, but there's not a lot of great ways to express it other than that. And, you know, think of the essence of the idea. You wrote a great blog post on the subject. You said, "Think about the essence of the idea. "Use simple shapes," and a lot of really good advice like that. One of the things that you said really struck me, though, because I always thought of it as being the opposite of the way you described it, but the way you described it has really stuck with me, and actually really works for me. And I can't explain why. (laughs) But you said, essentially, use the abstraction. Like, when you're trying to express an abstract concept visually, embrace that abstraction and don't try to run away from it. So can you expand on that, maybe explain what you were talking about there? - Well, to me all of visualization is really abstraction. In that, we take something that is very real, that is going to be people, the natural environment, behavior, something that is tangible, and is familiar, and you turn it into lines, and bars, and circles. So it is making things abstract, and then giving them a new meaning through encoding, like this. So, to me, the abstraction is always there in visualization, actually, that's how I think about it. And in this case, you know, if you are thinking of, I don't know, a pileup. You can visualize a pileup abstractly, with shapes that are piling up, for instance. You know, it doesn't have, even if it's a car pileup, or instance. It doesn't have to be car, you can just say that it's, you know, you can abstract logarithmic, like a very quick increase into something. It doesn't have to be the thing that is increasing. It can just be an abstract representation of this. And people get that. We're just working on an infographic right now, and we have decided to sort of humanize little circles. You know, instead of having a perfect grid where they are, the circles are not quite aligned. You know, like people would be in a crowd. You know, like unevenly distributed, and so we give them those little behaviors. And so we're showing statistics by showing that some of those circles have crossed the threshold, and some of them are still lagging behind, et cetera. But you know, instead of having people, the circle, as an abstract form, act there as a stand-in for the reality. - Yeah, I like the example of the pileup, just because it's so specific. We're doing something about a car pileup, and so people are going to automatically put cars on top of each other, but no, it can just be squares, or circles piled up, and it's the concept of piling up that's important, not the concept of a car accident, which, that's one of the abstractions, yeah, that people need to sort of embrace. - Absolutely, and so deep down, and if the problem is the pileup, not really the car. You know, the pileup's going to be like we have too many accidents. Or, I don't know, maybe too many cars, (laughs) and whatever it is that we're, it's really the pileup. It's going to be the same problem if we're talking about a pileup of something else. There is something, the essence of the idea here, that is the pileup and it can be distilled. It can be purified down with abstract forms to just focus on this idea. Like, it's almost forget about the cars, the problem is the pileup. - Yeah, yeah, that's a great way of saying it. What about, so there you know, concept visualization, even that is sort of a broad-ish category in that you can be visualizing an idea, like a car pileup. You can be visualizing a process. Any tips and tricks, any thoughts about how those are different from each other? Let's say, process diagram versus just an abstract concept. - Yeah, definitely, and that's a good point. You know, we have quantitative visualization, the data, the charts. Then you have qualitative visualization, which would be those diagrams, and I almost put concept visualization as a third category. The diagram is really meant to be studied, it's meant to be looked at, it's meant to as a reference, and if I follow the process, if I follow the hierarchy, if I follow the network, the strategy perhaps, you know, I can go back to it and read it at length and use it as a guide. But, the concept visualization is much more, let's say, short lived, you know? It is there to have a quick impact, as I said earlier, an anchor, like help you maybe get into an idea, maybe remember the idea, but it's not really meant to be studied. And this is one thing, I think, to be avoided when you visualize concepts, is trying to have everything into it. And that if whoever is reading the paper looks at the icon, they're going to be able to understand that, "Oh yes, this little animal here means this. "This tree here means that, "and the person standing next to it "with this in their hand means actually this." No one wants to read like this, you know? It's like you're going to write it next to it. Like, over-hunting is dangerous on the continent, for instance. You can read that, and then you can just have a weapon next to it, for instance, or an animal, and that's it. The icon is not really meant, or the visual of the concept is not really meant to be studied, to be understood. So that's the essential difference that I would make between a diagram and a visual of a concept. - Yeah, and it's interesting because you have the simplicity of iconic images, which is usually what we think about with concept visualization as you're describing it, that they're short-lived, they're trigger and anchor, or whatever, however you want to describe it, which are so similar to user interface elements, which are sort of serve that function, a trigger or reminder, et cetera, but also, in theory, are meant to be like this is the idea. So simple, and so pure, that they do, like an email icon means email, done. Case closed, you know. There's going to be no confusing it for anything else. And so I think a lot of people sometimes confuse concept visualization that it has to be that perfect. And therefore they try to make it like, "Okay, people will understand this immediately, "intuitively, and never be confused," which is maybe too high a bar to set for a lot of concept visualization. - Also, it's the visual is going to be in context. Maybe if you just see an eye, you don't understand what it means, but if the eye is in the little box where you enter your password, you know immediately that by clicking it, you're going to see what you're typing, instead of little circles, you know? So, it's the same thing when I draw an icon, or a visual in an infographic, or into a presentation. It's going to stand next to text. It's going to stand next to other icons, then you're going to get why I have an animal. And as I said, it is not meant to convey the entire idea. It is just a hook, in a way. - Yeah, so let me ask you this, what is, if you have an answer, it's okay if you don't. What's the most difficult challenge you've faced in concept visualization, and how did you overcome it? And what was the outcome? - Well, the more abstract the concept, the harder it is to come up with something, you know, when there is no visual. And sometimes, something will already have a clear visual, and there is a cliche attached to it, and sometimes it's okay to go with a cliche. But in certain cases it's so vague, and I cannot think of an obvious visual. In a recent case, and actually the one that's mentioned in my blog post, I had to visualize the finding that the agency collected a lot of data, but not enough on the things that matter. So okay, there is data, there is, but not on what matters. So, you know, one idea I could be to say, let's have a target, and then you miss the target, but when you're talking about evaluation, it more sounds like the program missed its target. In context, it doesn't quite work, and so I ended up thinking like, okay, we have a lot of data, but it's not focused on the right thing, and so I used a lamppost, and I put in circles, I put all those numbers, and the lamppost is shining a light on those numbers, and there's someone standing in the dark next to it. And the idea is that, in this case, they had not collected enough data about people. You know, about what was the impact on the actual people, and at most, they're going to see, people might understand it as the person being in the dark. Or they might understand it as the person, sort of, looking at the light, and at the data, which would still convey the fact that they had collected a lot of data anyway. But this was like, especially, visualizing the absence of something, like visualizing the fact that there was data missing about what was important, and you know, just less data, it was a very subtle thing. And so, I mean, I was happy with the final result, but as I said, it doesn't mean that this visual has to be like a stand-alone thing where people are going to say, "Oh, I see the visual and I understand "that they didn't collect enough data "about what matters most." You know, it's written right next to it. It's just a way to reinforce it, and to make the thing more visually interesting, as well. - Yeah, I gave a talk at Tapestry this year called, "Your Words Are Greater Than Visuals", 'cause yeah, the visual doesn't stand alone, whereas the words can stand alone. They will explain the concept, and so the words are more important, but of course, the two together make it wonderful and perfect. And I love that example. I think that is a very highly nuanced example, and I love your description of the process that you came to, because in describing the idea of, well, it's kind of like a target, uh, but here are the problems of the target. That's the process that you go through when you do this work. You think of an idea, especially the first idea you come up with is probably going to be closer to cliche, closer to the more obvious, but it may have challenges, problems, for a hundred reasons, and then therefore you have to keep exploring. And I always tell people, just give yourself some time to find that third, or fourth idea, 'cause oftentimes that'll be the best one. Which takes me to another question. You mentioned that sometimes a cliche works, like that's a simple idea. So I assume that means sometimes you're using icon libraries, stock illustrations, et cetera, or do you always sort of remake the wheel? In which case, why do you recommend one versus the other? - Yes, I do use icon libraries sometimes, and I do use cliches, as well, because in context, sometimes you want to attract the attention to something that is more valuable elsewhere. Sometimes you want to dispatch an idea quite quickly, and just say the target was missed, and here is a target that is missed, and you know, let's move on to maybe why it was missed, or by how much elsewhere. You cannot, even from a production standpoint, at some point you cannot spend just five days coming up with all the perfect icons, so you know, you need to really focus your idea where there is the best return. And sometimes there's going to be a more abstract idea to visualize, there's going to be a greater challenge that's going to be more value added by focusing on something else to really come up with a unique visual, which you know, at the same time you should do. If you're just using the Microsoft Office icon library, then you're not adding a lot of value, maybe, only through your selection. So you should be coming up with something that is custom to this, custom made for this specific purpose. So I use both, but not too much of icons. - Yeah, fair enough. Yeah, unfortunately our clients never have unlimited schedules or budgets. So yes, you have to make efficient decisions, in addition to wonderful, perfect decisions (laughs) along the way. - [Francis] Otherwise, I would only have the first client. You know, unlimited budget and schedule. I'd just be with the first one. - Yeah, although that would be a good client. (Francis laughing) Well, any final words of advice for our audience, in terms of thinking about visualization, particularity concept visualization, and I have to sort of set the context here a little bit in that, this is LinkedIn, and so while some of our audience members are definitely information designers, and people who do this work for a living, many of them are someone in HR who just has to create a Powerpoint next week for some report, and this is not what they do day-to-day. So especially advice that will be accessible, and useful for normal humans who don't think about this stuff all day long would be great to hear. - Okay, well, I would say that I would advise them to think like an information designer, long and hard. (laughs) Meaning, as you said, you need to get over your first reaction and your first reflex, and really get into the content. Get over, what I call the speed bump, you know, that little bump on the road that you know, you just want to avoid because it would mean like reading, really, this paragraph, understanding what it means, but this is where the value is, and this is where the pleasure of understanding is. Suddenly it's not just a few words and concepts, suddenly you're like, "Oh, they want to say "that it's better than expected, this thing, "not just that it's good. "They had something to say about it." And you just, you feel it when you're really invested in understanding something, and you've read through it, and this is where your best ideas are going to come from. - That's great, that is very solid advice, thank you. (laughs) So, we have run out of time, unfortunately. But Francis, I do want to thank you very much for joining me here today. I think our audience is going to gain a lot of value from this conversation, so thank you very much. - [Francis] Thank you very much for having me, Bill.