"Discipline is essential for a doctoral thesis"

Alberto Cairo:

Alberto Cairo: "Good information graphics must be based on quality and proven information or data"

From the USA, where he works as Knight Professor at the University of Miami and as director of the visualization programme at the Center for Computational Science, Alberto Cairo tells us about the preparation for his doctoral thesis at the UOC. Previously, he was director of information graphics at El Mundo online and with Editora Globo in Brazil. Author of the books The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization and The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication, he currently combines teaching with his work as an independent consultant and designer for companies such as Google and Microsoft.

By Marian Antón

"Time management is essential for research"


When did you first take an interest in information graphics and decide to devote your career to it?

Around 1997. I’d studied journalism in Santiago de Compostela and a professor at the university, who knew I could do sketches, told me about the possibility of an internship in the information graphics department of the La Voz de Galicia newspaper. There, they taught me a load of things about that world. That’s how I started out as an information graphics designer: someone who explains things through a drawing. Then I began veering towards data visualization, where I’m now firmly ensconced.

As an expert, what are the parameters that good information graphics should fulfil?

The first is that it has to be based on quality and proven information or data. That’s why the groundwork beforehand is key: getting the information together, talking to various sources, checking it and making sure that what you want to show is consistent with reality. If it’s going to be a graphic based on data and statistics, it’s a good idea to hook up with someone who’s an expert in these subjects, as journalists don’t usually have a command of statistics. Finally, you have to represent the data with forms that help the reader interpret them as suitably as possible.

Is there enough training in Spain for anyone wanting to specialize in this field?

Although I don’t know all that’s on offer, what’s evident is that there’s more than there was a few years ago. For example, the UOC offers data visualization classes, for which I’m a course instructor.

When did you first consider taking a doctoral degree?

I’ve always been interested in having a dual career. I’ve been a professor at the University of Miami for nearly six years, but at the same time, I still work freelance, doing jobs for companies. To get on in my own independent work, I don’t need to carry on researching, but for my academic work, I thought that having a doctoral degree could help me gain greater insight and learn about new research methods. The programme at the UOC helped me a lot in the classes, the advice of the supervisors or consultants, the books and recommended reading.

Were you very clear about the subject or did it evolve as your research developed?

I was very clear that I wanted to research the part I know more about, which is information graphics in newspapers: illustrated maps, graphs and how they’ve evolved over the last 20 years. I was interested in it and I had personal theses but I wanted to compare it with the reality, so I’ve had to research, interview experts, read books that talk about the evolution of graphics in newspapers, curate graphics that are published, etc. I was able to confirm some things and others changed my initial theses depending on what I found. Other aspects that also evolved were, for example, the number of interviews with experts that I conducted, doubling my initial plans, and the scope. Initially, I’d wanted to analyse the evolution globally, and I decided to focus on the English-speaking world, and specifically on the elite media in the USA. So, by restricting my sphere of action, I was able to reach more solid conclusions.

How did you find combining your doctorate with your work?

I was six years spending a little bit of time on the thesis, but it was really late 2015 and 2016 when I devoted myself almost full time to it. When I say “full time”, I really mean the free time I have left after doing my job as a professor at the university with my classes and my work as a freelance consultant. That means that for about a year I’ve been devoting one or two days a week to research.

What advice would you give to anyone planning to do a doctoral degree?

First of all, really listen to the consultants assigned to you because their ideas and advice will help you profile things. I like to call the thesis supervisor, the person who heads the thesis supervisory committee, a consultant and I compare the figure a bit with the editor of a communication medium or publisher. They’re like a sort of “Jiminy Cricket” who tells you what’s good or what’s not so good. It’s very good to listen to them like a guide or advisor of the thesis. Later, once you start sending in the versions of the work, you’re going to get feedback and you have to take it very seriously because they usually know a lot more than you do, so you have to listen closely. Another very important factor is time management. For that, you have to know what type of person you are. In my case, I need to do one specific thing every day, not mix different subjects by the hour. So, two or three days a week I give or prepare classes at the university, on others I work as a freelance on my projects, so I can put aside one or two days for my thesis. In any event, what’s important is to be very strict and to sit down and write or research in the time you’ve allocated yourself. Discipline is essential. Nowadays it’s very easy to spread yourself too thinly, so my advice is to focus for a few specific hours or days solely and exclusively on what you’ve set out to make progress in. Time management is essential.