Skip to content

List of Influences: Nigel Holmes

Few people have influenced the face of information graphics like Nigel Holmes. I am honored to not only present his very extensive and detailed list of influences here, but also do so on the occasion of his upcoming 70th birthday on June 15, 2012.

Nigel Holmes has recently been the subject of discussions in information visualization because of the role and potential benefit of chart junk. His work has been very influential, and no doubt controversial, because of his unique style and the breadth of his experiments. He is best known for the 16 years he spent at Time Magazine, first as a designer, later as Graphics Director. He has also worked for a large number of different clients, and his work spans a huge range, from technical explanations and classical information graphics to children’s books.

I first saw him speak at InfoVis 2005, where he delivered a very thought-provoking capstone talk. Earlier this year, Nigel was one of the judges at Malofiej, where I also participated. It was fascinating to see his assessments of the work, even if I didn’t always agree with him. We also had some good discussions about the relationship between visualization and information graphics (he hates the term infographic) and the use of his work to test the effectiveness of chart junk (he approves).

As an aside, Nigel is obsessed with the color blue. This manifests not only in his famous blue glasses, but also his clothes (down to his sneakers), his (somewhat outdated) website, and the Twitter handle that he (occasionally) tweets under: @nigelblue

Below are Nigel’s words, I have only made minor formatting changes and added section headings.

1. Otto Neurath

Firmly at the top of my list of influences is Otto Neurath, whose books International Picture Language (1936), and Modern Man in the Making (1939) are both long out of print (the former was reprinted in a different form by the University of Reading in 1980, but it’s still difficult to find). Neurath’s ISOTYPE system, an attempt at a universal picture language, is a model on which I have relied for its ideas about statistical accountability while using rows of tiny icons to represent quantities of a commodity rather than traditional abstract bars or fever lines. His long-time collaborator, Gerd Arntz, was the artist who made the work visible (Neurath himself was a social scientist, not a designer, nor a statistician), and I have looked closely—perhaps too closely at times!—at Arntz’s exquisitely drawn icons, and adapted them for any number of charts of my own.

A new appreciation of Neurath’s and Arntz’s work is flourishing, with recent books by Nader Vossoughian (Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis); Ed Annink and Max Bruinsma (Lovely Language and Gerd Arntz - Graphic Designer); and Marie Neurath (Otto’s widow) with Robin Kinross (The Transformer: Principles of Making Isotype Charts).

2. Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic masterpieces, Animals in Motion (1881), and The Human Figure in Motion (1885). Muybridge, who, among other eccentricities, changed his name from Edward Muggeridge when he left England for America, worked as a photographer in the San Francisco area. In 1872, he was asked by Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, to settle a bet about whether there is ever a moment when all four hooves of a trotting or galloping horse are off the ground at the same time. Muybridges’s sequential photos proved Stanford’s point. Sometimes called the “father of motion pictures,” Muybridge more importantly stopped motion, rather than creating a way of seeing motion, although there are plenty of charming flip books using his images. His work showed how wrong most depictions of galloping horses were (notably Degas’s racetrack paintings). Given the stories about his life and exploits, including his move to Mexico after murdering his wife’s lover (one story tells that he was later cleared by a jury that thought the lover deserved it), someone should make a movie about the man!

Picturing Time, an excellent book by Marta Braun, follows the life of Etienne-Jules Marey, a contemporary of Muybridge. Many think that Marey was a better photographer of people and animals in motion, mostly because he used a more rigorously science-based approach to his work. Braun has also written a biography of Muybridge.

You can get good modern reprints of Muybridge’s books from Amazon.

3. Eric Gill

Eric Gill, another eccentric Englishman, was a stone carver and sculptor, a wood engraver and designer of typefaces. If I was only allowed to use one font for the rest of my life, it would be his Gill Sans. Based on the classic roman capital letters that he had seen on the Trajan column in Rome (though not slavishly copied from them in some sort of “retro” homage), Gill’s beautiful sans serif face is simple, can be used as a text face, or for captions, or for headlines at large sizes, and it still looks modern although it was designed in 1928. His book, An Essay on Typography, first published in 1931, outlines his ideas about human involvement in work versus the machine aesthetic of his time (it’s currently out of print, and rather expensive from second-hand booksellers).

4. Thelonious Monk

My third eccentric: Thelonious Monk. Monk’s music is filled with “mistakes”. One reason: he had huge hands, so that his outstretched fingers coverered more than an octave on the piano, and this led to his oddly dischordant, but haunting melodies. But Monk said that there are no wrong notes in music, and in his recordings he deliberately left in what might sound like slips, or missed notes. Making mistakes, and leaving them for all to see (or hear), is a wonderfully human thing to do. It’s evidence that a real person made the work. The only trouble with his music is that I cannot listen to it while I am working: it demands my complete attention…it’s the opposite of “background” music. If you have never heard him, try this album first: Monk’s Dream, recorded in 1962

5. Powers of Ten

Powers of Ten (the film, and subsequently the book, the flip book and an interactive digital version) by The Office of Charles and Ray Eames and Philip and Phylis Morrison. A classic short film, based on an earlier book by Kees Boeke, which shows the effect of adding another zero to any number.

6. John Maeda

The Laws of Simplicity, by John Maeda. A wonderful manifesto. I particularly like his thoughts about emotion.

7. English Humor

Starting with Edward Lear’s nonsense limericks, through listening to the Goon show (on radio in the 50s), to watching Beyond the Fringe (60s), and Monty Python (70s), I have realized that a sense of humor in myself and others is essential. And the silly brand of humor that comes from my home country is just the sort that renders me helpless. Like Monk’s “mistakes,” making a fool of oneself in any field is important (although perhaps not while performing brain surgery, and a few other instances). We take ourselves, and the work we do, too seriously, methinks.

I loved the different kind of humor in Punch, the classic English satire magazine. This was the beginning of my affair with weekly magazines. From about 1955 to 1960, a nice aunt sent me her copy in the mail every week. I really wanted to be a contributor, and to see my work in print, and as a teenager I sent many drawings to the editor. I got the same number of refusals back, but they always came with a little handwritten note in pencil, encouraging me to continue. This generous attention to an wishful cartoonist taught me to be gentle (but reality-based) with designers and artists who flocked to Time Magazine with their portfolios, many years later.

8. Beck’s Underground Map

Harry Beck’s map of the London underground system is often cited as one of the most influential pieces of graphic design since the 1930s. Beck’s first version, which was subsequently revised many times to include graphic improvements and new “tube” lines, was published in 1933. Beck’s new idea, well-known now, was to disregard the physical geography above ground, and instead concentrate on “which station comes next” underground. To clarify the congested tube lines in center of London, while also including far off suburban stations, he made a different kind of map, more of a diagram of the stations and routes between them, which he based on the kind of wiring diagram that he was drawing in his job as an engineering draftsman in the office of the London Underground system. His not-at-all-to-scale “map” replaced the literal, geographically correct, map that had been in use since 1906.

Read all about the history of the map in Ken Garland’s great book, Mr Beck’s Underground Map.

9. Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997. It took me ages to get through this, but it was well worth it. The top edge of the book looks like an advertisement for yellow post-it notes, there are so many pages flagged. One of them, attached to a page titled “Seeing inTwo and a Half Dimensions,” says REREAD. I’ll do that!

10. An Atlas

A book that I stole from my older brother, A Pictorial Atlas of The British Isles, published in 1937. As a child this book showed me (in admittedly childish ways) how to combine pictures and geography in lively, but informative ways. I loved this atlas without knowing that later in life I would make maps with pictures on them. At the time of this writing, there are two used copies for sale at Amazon.

Posted by Robert Kosara on June 10, 2012. Filed under influences.