How NPR made its ‘Arrested Development’ graphic: ‘We like to build useful stuff’

Adam Cole is not an “Arrested Development” superfan: “I have friends who are much more into it than I am,” the NPR reporter said in a phone interview. But Cole took a scientist’s eye to the cult television series, which will be resurrected Sunday after its 2006 cancellation.

Cole’s employer, NPR, presented his data Friday in an insanely complex news app called “Previously, on Arrested Development.” The app lets you delve into, say, how many times Tobias “giggles ambitiously,” or do a deep dive into Buster and missing limbs.

A selection from the graphic.

Cole originally envisioned a static graphic, saying that “I didn’t think I would bring this to work. I thought it would be a fun thing.” But he added that when Netflix announced it would revive the series, “I was like, ‘Wow, this is as good a peg as I’m ever gonna get.’ ”

Cole, 26, said he suspected he’s “one of the few people” his age who watched the show when it was on broadcast television. He began re-watching the episodes about six months ago, carefully cataloging and taxonomizing every in-joke, pun and visual gag. At first, he said, he’d have to pause episodes frequently, but eventually it “became easier to be a humorless statistician.”

His schoolwork in biology came in handy: “My undergraduate thesis was about mussel beds, so I was very used to filling out endless spreadsheets with data.”

“After we had finished giggling uncontrollably we decided that this was pure Internet gold and that we needed to put this thing online,” NPR news applications editor Brian Boyer wrote Poynter in an email. Boyer called the app “an example of one of the finest things we can do in journalism — gathering your own data. That’s often where the good stories hide.”

Cole lives in Washington, D.C., and gathered the information largely without the help of his three roommates or his girlfriend: “I didn’t expect anyone to be like, ‘Yeah I wanna come over and fill in a spreadsheet with you.’ ”

He said he’s not sure a collaborative approach would have worked, anyway. “It would have been complicated to try to have another person come in and try to align our idea of what a joke is.”

NPR news app developer Jeremy Bowers helped Cole get his spreadsheet ready for the app team, which then slurped the data into a design. Coding started Monday, and “Previously, on Arrested Development” launched Friday.

“We decided on a hybrid graphic/website approach,” Boyer writes. “The graphic’s purpose was to illustrate the pure insanity of the undertaking and the linkable, mobile-friendly website was there to enhance your re-watching experience. The former is fun and pretty, but the latter is useful (well, useful to crazed fans), and we like to build useful stuff.”

Boyer and Cole both emphasized that the graphic was a team effort: Cole shares credit with four others at NPR. When not dissecting “Arrested Development,” Cole works on NPR’s science desk, where his duties include illustrating pieces and creating animations, such as this eyebrow-raising video about eponyms.

Wanna Live Forever? Become A Noun from NPR on Vimeo.

Cole’s illustrations accompany the “Arrested Development” app, too. He calls “Previously” a “very silly project” but said it was a good way for him to work on a big project with NPR’s apps team, which has plenty of experience creating data-driven editorial presentations, such as this piece on tax breaks for property developers. Soon, he hopes, “we can do a little bit less frivolous project that has more impact.”

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.