Duncan Swain, Co-founder of Beyond Words, shares his journey from journalism to data visualisation, and how his studio uses storytelling to bring data to life in innovative new ways.

You started your career in publishing, working as a journalist and editor — how and why did you make the transition to design and digital?

I was getting a bit bored by what was, at the time, 'traditional media’ so had itchy feet. I wanted to stay in media, the internet was taking off and I could see ways of bringing the rigour and thought processes from journalism into the more unregulated Wild West of the internet in the '90s. Journalism and editorial thinking informs everything we do with data at Beyond Words, so I also don’t actually feel I have transitioned away from being a journalist and editor.

When did you start working with data visualisation, and what’s made you so passionate about it?

I worked with David McCandless (of Information is Beautiful fame) back in my magazine days and he’d piqued my interest in stretchy maps and other ways of telling stories with data, so I’d been aware of it for a long time. When he asked me and Rebecca Conroy (Co-founder with me at Beyond Words) to help set up Information is Beautiful Studio in 2011 we jumped at the chance to do something new and different that again reminded me of the early days of the internet. After a couple of years, Rebecca and I launched Beyond Words Studio as a chance to do different, more ambitious and groundbreaking work with data, in ways that hadn’t been seen before.

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Beyond Words: BBC iWonder

How did you go about building up your knowledge, skills and experience in this area?

The studio’s form of data visualisation and data journalism has really allowed me to capitalise on all the skills I’d been accumulating for years around editorial thinking, design and building digital things. But there’s been a lot of self-education too around choosing appropriate visualisation devices, types of data, data sources, design guidelines specific to data visualisation — the list goes on.

Two things that helped enormously were judging data visualisation awards, which exposes you to masses of different work, and running our own data visualisation workshops which forces you to crystallise your own thinking around the subject to be able to feed back on other people’s work.

What led to you and Rebecca setting up your own studio, and what was your vision when launching?

We’ve worked together for nearly 20 years and have very complimentary skills, which worked well for us at the BBC. We were keen to see what it would be like to have our own studio and be more in control of our own destiny. It’s hard work but we know that every minute is being put into something we believe in. Our vision was and is to create innovative, engaging data visualisations for great clients. We’ve built up some really strong client relationships over the years and that collaboration with them is really important.

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Beyond Words: Full of Spice Festival, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

How has your editorial background influenced your approach to data visualisation, and the way you and Rebecca have set up Beyond Words?

We both come from journalistic backgrounds. We’ve learnt from early on about not just telling stories but being clear about the facts. That focus on accuracy is even more important these days. All the data has to be from credible sources and clearly referenced so that users can check it out themselves if they want to. We set up the studio with editorial and journalism at the heart of it. Each data vis piece starts with a story and there is always an editorial person paired with a designer throughout each project.

What's the process for each new project that comes in?

Our studio process is a fairly typical creative process, but it’s one that’s driven by the story, the narrative thread, the journalistic hook we find in the data. We start by writing a concept — this describes the central story idea, the data streams we might use, a bit about the audience — and this is what we go back to again and again throughout the process to make sure we’re delivering what we said we were going to. From there we go through more data research to sketching to more finalised design, and also any development or coding if it’s an interactive piece. The trick isn’t just about having a process, it’s making sure the process is followed for every project we take on.

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Beyond Words: Cascade, Neglected Tropical Diseases Summit 2017

What’s the best project you’ve worked on to date at Beyond Words, and why?

My favourite piece we’ve worked on is Cascade, a piece we did about neglected tropical diseases for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We had a lot of creative freedom so we used a bespoke three-faceted 30 x 5 metre screen to be installed in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. We brought Territory Studio onboard to help with translation from a desktop screen to a cinema-sized screen. We worked with composer, Tim Cowie, who produced an amazing soundtrack and music for the piece. There were lots of firsts for us with this project and it all came off perfectly, thanks to the work and effort of a whole host of people. And it was quite an emotional moment seeing it play out on that monster screen at full volume for the first time.

Now that you have your own studio, what do you look for in those joining the team?

The three key attributes we look for are related, I think.

Humility — we like people who know they don’t know everything, and look for ways to get better.

Curiosity — we want people who are self-educators, who are curious about the work they do but also the world in general. We work on a broad range of subjects that we all have to get under the skin of and understand.

A lack of ego — we look for people who know that the work we do is greater than the sum of the parts, that most people in the studio work on any given project at some point, and it’s that power of a group of people all working together with a common vision that makes great work. 


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Beyond Words: Cascade, Neglected Tropical Diseases Summit 2017


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