The Newsroom blog

News about yesterday's news, and where news may be going

07 June 2022

Creating infographics for historical news

The British Library is currently hosting at its St Pancras site a free exhibition of infographics on Victorian news topics, created using data from digitised newspapers and other sources. In this guest post, one of the professional designers behind the Visualising Victorian News exhibition, Ciaran Hughes, explains how he got involved. 

Advocates of Freedom - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

Advocates of Freedom - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

Often, especially when previously working at national newspapers, a graphic briefing would consist of being asked - or rather, told – that what was required was a map (no matter the topic) that showed how big the provided numbers were. Of course this was rarely what was required, or indeed delivered.

Instead the British Library project was as far from that starting point as possible.

Living with Machines - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

Living with Machines - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

With so much information and so many data sets we worked to slowly construct the graphics, and a narrative hierarchy that would offer the reader many entry points. Linked and cross-referenced, the various elements worked as building blocks in the construction of an overarching story. So it became about striking a balance, visually as well as editorially. Also, as I was doing several of the posters it was important that they worked together as a series.

About 20 years ago when traipsing round primary schools with my toddler son, I was conscious of how many double-page spread, stand-alone, strong colourful infographics (usually taken from The Guardian) had lived on as teaching aids, pinned up in their busy corridors and shiny classrooms. I wanted my graphics to have the same impact and level of engagement, and also to work in a public space. The copy had to be legible from a set standing distance and the posters had to appear light, open and inviting.

Disease Science and Suspicion - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

Disease, Science and Suspicion - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

So with a shared grid, common fonts for headlines and copy, and a limited colour palette we constructed various sections to see how they fitted together. This helped us discover what was important and their role in the flow of the narrative. Like moving pieces of a jigsaw round, we started to make small information blocks into larger blocks until they developed and became more solid. The historical images helped serve the narrative too, and in a way their limitations were their strengths – the crude printing methods gave them a visual texture that I could incorporate into the designs. If these elements work to create a compelling, informative and engaging work then I think the brief has been fulfilled.

Ciaran Hughes

The Price of Tea - British Library Infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

The Price of Tea - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

For larger images from the exhibition and other examples of Hughes's work, visit https://www.ciaranhughes.design. The free Visualising Victorian News exhibition continues at the British Library, St Pancras, until 21 August 2022

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