How design shapes news and storytelling – tips from Gurman Bhatia, Reuters
In this expert interview, we shed light on the growing contribution of design in data storytelling, cultural evolution, and business leadership.
Gurman Bhatia works at the intersection of journalism, design, and code at Reuters in Singapore. Her work is a combination of data extraction, analysis, and forming compelling narratives around data.
A self-taught coder and designer, Gurman graduated from Columbia University and previously worked at Hindustan Times. She is a former Google News Fellow and guest faculty at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. She is a winner of the GEN data journalism awards and the South Asia FCC awards.
Gurman has told the data-driven story of pollution in Delhi through a set of photographs; created visualisations with the faces of over 8,500 candidates contesting in the Indian election, and even analysed 25,000 Bollywood songs to show the decline of the female solo.
Gurman is also a speaker at the upcoming DesignUp 2019 conference in Bengaluru, for which YourStory is the media partner. See our earlier coverage of DesignUp 2018 and 2017 and our d.Zen (‘Design Zen’) section for more resources on design.
Gurman joins us in this interview on design impacts, the key role of narrative, and the importance of designing for users beyond the visual medium, and the English language in India.
YourStory: In a world of information overload and unending distractions, what do you see as the key role of designers?
Gurman Bhatia: To distill the maximum amount of information, in the least amount of space, with the least possible ink. This is something data visualisers refer to as the data-ink ratio but I think this is extremely relevant for design in general.
It is only after we reduce our designs to give maximum precedence to the most crucial information, do we become effective communicators.
YS: What role does design play in data storytelling, or balancing the qualitative and quantitative?
GB: The quantitative on its own means very little. I often state something I was once told by an editor in the US: "People don't remember numbers, people remember people.” The qualitative is what makes the quantitative worthwhile and gives it relevance and context.
Good design is the perfect glue for the qualitative and the quantitative. Although it can create value in several ways, one of the many roles design has in storytelling is of improving access and helping people understand the quantitative and qualitative better.
For example, in this project, the idea to use actual photos to talk about the people and to make readers scroll to get through them, are both design decisions. The idea to use photographs makes the visuals more relatable – to reinforce that we are talking about actual people. The trick to make people scroll is a subtle design technique to illustrate the idea of scale. Both elements are conscious design decisions to make the storytelling much more effective.
YS: What do you see as the connection between art/aesthetics and design, and how can appreciation of these similarities and differences lead to better design?
GB: Art and aesthetics are crucial to culture. Different forms of art – be it music, dance, theatre, or other visual arts, have been historically relevant to both the public and personal space. They are political and can often shape public opinion.
Good design is also a cultural evolution. It is again relevant to the public and personal space. How a city is designed will affect its policies. Design choices can also be political. Do I use pink for the female gender in my visualisation or not? It is a political choice.
While these similarities kind of merge the different domains, there are some things that also set them apart. That difference is often one of form and function. Good design is almost always functional first – which is at the end of the day the most important thing in a product.
Let’s say you have a house. How many rooms are you going to build? Are they all on one floor? Are you going to construct a basement? These are all design decisions. They are so much more about the function and the basic premise with which you are building something. Now you start deciding the colour of the walls and the curtains - these are more aesthetic choices.
It is a vague line and in many ways, it can be subjective, but it is only when decisions in both domains are made well, you end up with the perfect product.
YS: How should techie founders deepen their understanding of design so as to offer better products/services?
GB: As a person who is neither in a tech team nor in a design team, I really don’t know how to best answer this question. My work is at the intersection of tech and design. I don’t have a degree in either, but I like to believe that I have a working understanding of both. I will draw a parallel between the design/tech partnership and the data graphics/editorial partnership in newsrooms.
Most stories that we create function like individual products. There is an idea conception, followed by a pitch, prototypes, several layers of editing and finally shipping the finished product (in this case, also called publishing a story). The best possible products come out of partnerships where (1) you get people who are at the intersection of domains in leadership positions, and (2) you get these people in the same room at the product conception.
As data journalists, when we tell stories with data, we need people who remember that we need to tell a story. At the same time, we need people who might know how to best scrape a site or draw summaries from a million rows.
They both need to understand the importance of what they are trying to achieve together. Neither team can treat the other as a service desk. They are a partner in the true sense – with a shared goal and vision.
For founders, I think it is more important to make sure they get the right people in the same room and build that shared vision amongst them. At the end of the day, nothing binds teams like a common mission - and in our case that shared mission is to tell the best possible story for our readers.
YS: What are the three books designers must have on their bookshelf?
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte
An absolute must when talking about information design. It is an excellent primer on design choices that are crucial to communicating information.
Thing Explainer, by Randall Monroe
The perfect amalgamation of the complex and the simple. XKCD’s Randall Monroe illustrates complicated scientific processes using the thousand most-used words in the English language. Can you tell what is a food heating radio box?
Thinking in Systems, by Donella H Meadows
Systems thinking 101.
YS: As we come to the close of 2019, what are the three key emerging design trends you see in 2020?
GB: I am going to answer this purely from the information design standpoint. I can’t possibly comment on the broad design community in general.
1. Think beyond tech: There is a landmark improvement in the kind of tools available, which means the technology is becoming more and more accessible. As these developments happen in the tools space, the onus of the designers purely becomes one of conception. This trend will emerge stronger in the coming years. Humans have to focus on the skills that they are best at – creativity and empathy.
2. Think beyond the visual: We are consuming more audio, we are listening to podcasts, audiobooks, and we are consuming content on smart speakers. So much so, smart speakers are soon going to be the first tech device most toddlers interact with. I think how we design experiences for information consumption on these devices is an extremely relevant thing to come. Information design soon needs to become much more than the visual, and touch the aural as well.
3. Think beyond English: With a growing community and the formation of spaces like the Data Visualisation Society, we are soon gaining greater literacy of how to read sophisticated pieces of design. As it becomes easier to connect with non-English speaking designers, we bring in their lessons to expand how we do visualisations in varied languages.
In India – a land of multiple languages, this becomes even more relevant – how we can create spaces that are more technically and culturally accessible to those beyond the English-speaking community.
(Edited by Suman Singh)