In-house teams: How Reuters Graphics visualises “catastrophic” world events

As part of our new series about in-house design teams, Simon Scarr, deputy editor of Reuters Graphics talks visualising catastrophe, global communication and Star Wars.

“Just because a story is big doesn’t mean that it’s visual, or that it merits a response from us,” Simon Scarr tells Design Week. “We try to work on stories that really need our work — where the visual aspects are essential to the understanding.”

Scarr is the deputy editor of the Reuters Graphics, the news agency’s in-house graphics team that creates and distributes graphics to its clients all over the world. Recent visuals have covered the outbreak of the Coronavirus in China, Hong Kong protests and the Iran-U.S missile crisis. In January, the team made a scroll-down page displaying hundreds of orange squares, aiming to convey the scale of Australia’s bushfires, which have so far razed 103,000 sq km of land (an area the size of South Korea).

We speak to Scarr about how the team tailors content to clients, keeps up with the news cycle and stays inventive.

What do they do?

The team publishes graphics to and distributes content to clients internationally. Reuters is a news agency, which media and corporate companies from all over the world subscribe to. This means that the focus must have “global or at least regional appeal”. “As much as a mayor’s race in Spokane may be of huge interest for that community, it won’t play on the global scale,” Scarr says.

It means they must always consider the “end user of the work”, which is not necessarily a reader. A client might be a newspaper, but it could also be a company with an online product. That means that the team must produce a file that is easy to edit, for individual client’s use. “We have to go one step beyond thinking how something will look in the window of a web browser,” Scarr explains. It has to be done “in a way that’s easy to understand if someone if picking these files apart and editing them”.

Illustrations for the Hong Kong protests. Courtesy of Reuters

Another consideration is language. Because of the agency’s international focus, not all clients use the English language, so the graphics and presentations have to be built in a way that is easy to translate. And although digital is a focus, many clients still have a printed product. A print client might want a static map or a series of static charts, Scarr says. “We would never send out a large interactive file and expect a print client to pick that apart,” he adds. “Everything has the customer in mind.”

Most importantly, it’s the “visual merit” of a story that matters. Scarr says a question that’s often asked among the team is: “Will the visuals add value, or can the reader understand this story just as well without them?”

How does the team work?

Scarr is based in Singapore, but the graphics team has desks in New York, London, and Bangalore. There are around 20 members in the entire team. Each desk tends to focus mostly on their region (divided by AMERS, EMEA, and APAC), but there is some collaboration on stories with “global elements” and pre-planned major events, like a recently published feature on Davos (with floating Bill Gates’ faces to show the number of years the Microsoft founder has attended the annual Swiss conference). The 2020 Tokyo Olympics coverage will be a joint effort between all bureaus.

“Cross-region collaboration can also be driven by pairing up particular skillsets, data-heads, cartographers, illustrates and codes to work together,” Scarr says. “We think of ourselves as one large team and have communication channels that make it easy for us to share work, discuss ideas and solicit feedback, regardless of where we are in the world.”

That also means working with the entire newsroom. Most of the team are reporters by trade, Scarr says — although he is an exception, having gained a diploma in Newspaper Design and Information Graphics. But having access to the Reuters newsroom — with reports on the ground and investigative journalism — means that the team can work with an enviable variety of datasets.

The visual showing the edited police procedures manual. Courtesy of Reuters

A recent visual for the Hong Kong protests showed changes the police made to their guidelines on the use of force in the run up to October’s violence. Discovered by a reporter at the Hong Kong bureau — “a story by itself”, Scarr says — the information then became part of a “bigger immersive project”. The team highlighted in yellow all the additions the police made (such as suggestions of pepper spray, tear gas and water cannons as law enforcement) and strike-throughs for removed phrases. For example, the framework of actions against police by assailants that were considered aggressive changed from, “Physical assault not intended to cause serious bodily injury” to “Physical assault to cause or likely to cause bodily injury to others”, significantly loosening police restrictions.

Illustration of the weapons used during the Hong Kong protests. Courtesy of Reuters

What’s the process like?

Scarr says while the team is “open to experimentation” in terms of new technology, there’s a regular suite of programmes it uses. Adobe Illustrator is prime among them, as well as QIS or ArcGIS for mapping and plotting map layers and Cinema 4D for 3-D work. D3.js is used for a lot of the data visualisation.

When it comes to coming up with ideas for the visuals, the process is less linear. “Truthfully, we often don’t know the best way to visualise something until we start trying to do it,” Scarr says. “For most of the pieces we do, there is a sad trail of trial and error.”

But just as great ideas can end up as mediocre visuals, often the simplest data makes the most impactful graphic. One particularly memorable motion graphic came from a simple fact: In 2019, almost 1 million plastic bottles were purchased every minute. It shows a human figure being ‘drowned’ in plastic bottles, with a timer that counts how many plastic bottles have been sold since the page was opened.

As you scroll down, more graphics show the quantity by hour (at which point Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer would have been covered) and by day — when 1.3bn bottles would pile up to half the size of the Eiffel Tower. In ten years, 4 trillion bottles have been sold, enough to cover the city of Manhattan.

Visualisation showing the amount of plastic humans inadvertently consumer. Courtesy of Reuters

The team is aware that projects are likely to be shared on social media, and so should look good. Illustrations for the Hong Kong weapons piece were done in-house in Singapore by Marco Hernandez, lending a hand-drawn illustrative style that contrasts with the more-realistically rendered models of bullets and weapons.

What are the challenges?

A good news sense is crucial. The biggest story in the world might not be on the pages the day after, and Scarr says it would not be worth it to commit time to visualise these. It’s also possible to follow stories as they break. The recent coverage of Coronavirus — the respiratory illness that has spread from Wuhan, China — is a good example of this. First there was a global map charting the outbreak of cases, then a chart with pending cases against deaths and recoveries and another map of mainland China with localised cases. “As that story continues to grow,” Scarr says, “you spot more angles to look at and more interesting ideas.”

Visualising the scale of plastic bottle use. Courtesy of Reuters

It also requires being selective, sometimes disapprovingly so. “There are unlimited possibilities for visual story-telling and with unlimited resource we would probably try to do them all,” he says. “But the fact of the matter is, we are a moderately sized team trying to cover the entire world, so we can only really engage on a tiny fraction of the projects we would like to.”

What’s next?

Scarr is sure that things might change with the advent of virtual and augmented reality — “there’s a progression in how people are absorbing content,” he says. But the team has to think about how widespread that technology is. “We’re not aggressively working on projects using that technology right now, but we do discuss new ways of tackling projects, especially with sports.” Right now, it’s simplicity that’s key: People are used to scrolling down through stories, so the interactive graphics often work with this motion.

The Star Wars graphic, which shows how man lightsaber strikes characters made against each other during the films. Courtesy of Reuters

Sometimes the graphics team dabble outside of serious news into lighter stories. Like an infographic on Star Wars, published on the release of the 2019’s The Rise Of Skywalker, showing the number of lightsaber strikes made by each characters in the science fiction saga. The statistics were visualised in signature blue, red and greens of the weapons. (Mark Hamill, the actor who played Luke Skywalker liked the story on Twitter.) The team has also published graphics for the Oscars, using different shades of gold to represent nominations earned by films.

Scarr hints that there are more of these projects to come — including a recurring idea about the proliferation of mangoes — and not simply because they are popular online. “It’s a welcome change of pace after covering the negativity or catastrophic events that often drive the news agenda,” he says.

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