Next Generation of Visual Thinkers is Drawing the Future of Journalism

Walk through one of Karl Gude’s information graphics classes at Michigan State and you’ll likely find students who want to be writers, not visual journalists.

Yet their graphics work is making it into the local paper. They’re drawing self-portraits, learning to use color and typography, diving into visual reporting for breaking news and working with software programs like Illustrator, Photoshop and 3D rendering programs. They’re analyzing data, trying their hand at GIS mapping and more.

And for some, Gude’s classes are igniting a passion for visual journalism that will take them into the ranks of graphics reporter or artist. At the very least, they’ll be well equipped with an appreciation for what visuals can do for storytelling.

College journalism programs around the country are beginning to press the importance of visual and multimedia thinking.

Gude spent more than a decade at Newsweek, first as an artist, then as graphics director. Now, he’s back at school, in his second year of teaching at Michigan State.

“I see information graphics as a convergence –- a combination of four things. One of them is content,” said Gude, “strong information. Another one is art and design. You have to be pretty good at that stuff. Another is technology. And finally, critical thinking. That’s what journalism is all about,” he said.

Retired Poynter faculty member George Rorick talked with Gude about what he’s teaching, how a program that attracts mostly writing students is developing into new visual directions and how those skills can help journalism.

I listened in. Here’s the edited interview.

George Rorick: Who are your students, Karl? Are most of them writers? Visual journalists? Are they interested in graphics? Multimedia?

Karl Gude: I’ve been teaching for two years now at Michigan State in the School of Journalism. One of the things I have been most excited about, and also a little bit frustrated about, is that the majority of the students in the journalism program tend to want to be writers and editors.

These people generally have word talent and word skills, but very little visual skills.

Basically, I’m spending half the semester just getting these writing kids up to speed on basic design and illustration concepts that are necessary for them to be able to visualize data.

Only then are we really starting to get into visualizing content. Thankfully, they’ve taken classes before me on research and content gathering. So they know how to do an interview and pick up the phone and look on the Internet.

Download the turf graphic.pdfDownload the turf graphic.pdf

So, you basically have two groups — visual and non-visual, right? But you also have some graphics people who are naturally there because they are interested in drawing and design, right?

Gude: Not so much. The students who come into journalism … by the time they’re juniors –- they’ve basically, maybe taken one design class from one of the other instructors -– News Design, like for page layout, not infographics. And they start to say, “Gee, this is fun.” But they entered the program in the beginning because they wanted to be writers.

There really is not a lot of recruitment into our program, yet, for kids in high school that do design. They tend to want to go to the art school down the road, the Kresge Art Center.

We have some excellent design instructors here in our college. There’s Cheryl Pell, there’s Darcy Green. They teach wonderful design courses. Any students who’ve taken their courses and then come into my class, they’re always the best in the class. But even still, they’re not students who wanted to be designers since they were in high school.

You do have the occasional student who everyone talks about having a “natural talent” for this design stuff. We’ve had some amazing designers come out of our school, only because that skill was recognized. It may not have been their original interest for coming into the program.

At the University, we’re starting to collaborate with the art college. The students over at the Art Center can now start to take classes over in our college -– the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. We can also send our students over there, to take design courses. It’s just beginning to happen.

By Fall of 2009, I should be getting juniors – students who have gone through the entire design program at the Art Center. I can’t wait to get those kids!

What kind of response are you getting from your students? If they’ve come into the program to become better writers, how do they react? Do they have to take your course to graduate?

Gude: No, they don’t. I’m happy to say that my courses have become extremely popular. They fill up so fast. Students are recognizing that this is an exciting thing to do.

Why do you think they like it?

Gude: Well, people are born visual. If you ask a bunch of kindergartners “How many of you in this class are artists?” Every kid’s hand is going to go up, every one of them. If you ask a bunch of 12-year-olds (if they are) artists, not many hands are going to go up. They’ve been shamed into being told that they’re not very good at drawing or visualizing. They become shy about it.

But, in my classes, already, most of them are not considered visual people. They don’t know how to draw. But they’re in there to see what all of the buzz is about. We have a lot of fun and that word is getting around.

What sort of projects are you doing?

Gude: To teach mapping, we have a campus-wide treasure hunt. They have to hide something and then do diagrams on how to find it –- without words. And then, everybody switches maps and it’s a big race to go find the treasure.

To teach breaking news graphics, for four semesters now, I’ve convinced the person who’s in the campus coffee shop to pretend that the store was robbed over the weekend, and that they were the one who was there.

So, I go up and I say, “I’ve just discovered that Sparty’s (the name of the shop) was robbed over the weekend! And, oh, my god! The person who was on duty then is there now –- and is willing to talk with us for 10 minutes. So we can go down and interview that person about exactly what happened.”

Then, we do a big graphic on what they say. I don’t even know what they’re going to say.

What are the results? What kind of graphics have you been getting out of these classes?

Gude: The good news is that there have been graphics that have been pretty good. And, surprisingly, it’s not always from the better designers. One graphic is being published this very day in the Lansing State Journal, which is our local paper. The very first semester I taught, I talked to the managing editor –- it’s a nice, good paper.

I know. I used to work there. For 10 years!

Gude: Of course you did! That’s right! I totally forgot you were a total Lansing guy, George!

So, one assignment is to find something that is of local interest to the Lansing area, that the Journal might want to publish. They’re wonderful over there. They agreed to consider all of the pages and graphics that we do, for publication.

I think it’s interesting that you said that some of your best graphics were being done by “non-visual” people. Tell me more about that.

Gude: The one being published today is on turf, you know, like the football field. (It was done by a) grad student who is more on the science side of journalism. He had never made a graphic before. I was pretty blown away by what he did.

A lot of people who can draw well think, “all I have to do is draw this well and it’s going to be fantastic.” But, it has to be based on content and good information.

Gude: Well, the basics that I teach are that, if they can trace an image, or use photography, then it’s just a question of organizing the graphic.

You just can’t have a ton of content and know how to design and use technology without having the ability to analyze the data and interpret it visually for the reader. Or to edit it down. That takes some serious critical thinking. That’s what journalism is all about.

All design really is is making order out of chaos. So, if you have all of these elements, like photos and text and maps and drawings and charts –- it all has to be packaged.

You know, you use a grid; you have this logical flow of information from top to bottom. You can teach these mechanical things –- the use of color, typographic hierarchies –- but some people just get it. And some people don’t get it.

I like to hear about the way you’re distributing the work –- getting it into the newspaper. What other sorts of projects do they do?

Gude: My first semester, I had them draw fish, to learn how to use the drawing software. I stole Terence Oliver’s idea from Ohio University. The fish came out really nice, but I could tell the students’ hearts weren’t really in it.

Next semester, I said, “OK, you’re drawing a self-portrait for your MySpace page!”

Wow.

Gude: And I said “It’s a portrait of you, so you’re going to want this to rock and roll.”

One of these “non-visual” people said they spent four hours, just drawing the mouth. It’s a hell of a mouth, I gotta tell you.

Let’s talk more about technology.

Gude: You need to be able to use a lot of technologies to tell your story. Maybe you want to use slides online. Maybe you want to edit a video. Maybe you need to do some GIS data mapping to locate something. Maybe it needs to be slightly 3D, for some reason. Or use Flash or Dreamweaver.

News organizations are expecting to see more and more ability with technology from these students.

All of these technologies coming together, people are calling it convergence. So, the reporter who normally would go out on an interview with a pad of paper and a pen can no longer just sit there with a paper and a pen. They’ve also got to know how to take a little video camera along, prop it up on a little stand and videotape that guy being interviewed. Because their Web site’s going to expect to be able to upload that for the Web. Maybe they’ll even have to know how to edit that video.

Our students are learning how to edit video and all sorts of stuff.

What is the outlook that students have for the future of the business? Are they optimistic? Pessimistic?

Gude: That’s a really good question, George. As adults, we’re all sort of terrified for the future of journalism. There’s so much soul-searching by people already in the industry.

I’m teaching at a camp for high school journalism students this week. They’re taught by professionals and academics. There are 500-plus students at the university this week, all of them wanting to be journalists. I am really encouraged by that kind of turnout.

These kids — their understanding that newspapers are going away someday –- the idea that a newspaper with 18-hour-old news is going to be source for news – that’s not going to be very real for very long.

What we’re trying to create are these critical thinkers with all of these skills so that they can go into whatever direction journalism decides to take them. You know, flexibility … light on their feet.

They’re excited about it?

Gude: I think they are. I think that most of them think that there are still enough jobs out there. They can either get a job on the Web side of things, or on the paper side of things. A lot of students will stay here in Michigan. They’ll work at weekly newspapers. They will work at small papers or mid-sized papers. There are some who want to work at The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

I’ve never seen a single student have doubts about it. Not as a junior or a senior. Sophomores might think about other paths –- advertising. I tell them, if you want to study advertising, great. But there is a lot of competition for advertising. Every school cranks out a lot of advertising students.

There’s competition for a journalist in writing jobs, too. How many writers do you think are knocking on the door of The New York Times? A lot. How many infographics people are knocking on the door at The New York Times? Not many.

I wish I was 20 years old again, really. I think there is tremendous opportunity out there for visual journalists, for people who can combine the writing, visual, reporting and technology skills.

Gude: There’s not only a future in visual journalism. One of the things that I’ve realized is that the skills that people are learning in my class -– how to make information graphics, or how to visualize data in a variety of ways –- statistical, geographical, diagrammatical –- these are skills that can be applied to other industries, too.

It’s a visual world.

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