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Key takeaways from designing a 200-page report for the UN
Have you ever looked at a design and thought to yourself: “Wow, this is terrible, I can’t believe the designer allowed this to be published”. I know I definitely have. More than once. But a recent project experience has forever changed that.
Last April, I was contacted by the head of a data team at the UN’s International Organisation for Migration. The United Nations! I could hardly believe it. They asked me to design their flagship report on the state of migration in Asia-Pacific. I obviously said yes. I was thrilled.
While the project was incredibly meaningful, it also turned out to be the most challenging undertaking I’ve ever agreed to. As a lot of you asked me to share more details about it, I compiled three main lessons that can perhaps help you in your next challenging endeavour.
Don’t make it about you
Design projects are often bigger than just the specific output we’re meant to produce. It’s not only about crafting a beautiful report with effective charts. It’s also personal. What we design goes into our portfolio and acts as a showcase of our skills, unique style, and innovative approach.
And this is where matters get complicated. It can be difficult to accept certain design choices that we don’t agree with, that we wouldn’t make if it were only up to us. But it’s not up to us. In fact, it’s really not about us at all. First and foremost, it’s about the audience and how they can best consume the data. Then, it’s about the client’s needs and objectives.
I had to come to terms with quite a few decisions for this report that I wasn’t particularly excited about. Here’s a simple example: I wanted to give the design a modern look and suggested we left- rather than full-justify the text—the kind of style you’d find in a magazine. However, the client was convinced that the fully justified text looked more professional, and I just had to accept it at the end (including all the spacing difficulties that come with it).
All in all, I think I was able to negotiate about half of the design choices I wanted to make. What matters is that we agreed on the most important ones—those related to accessibility—and everything else I just had to get over. It wasn’t about me.
Be ready to iterate
I love the concept of creative direction: you choose the style for the entire project at its beginning, everyone accepts it, and you stick to it until the end. It’s a beautiful idea in theory. In practice though, it can be closer to wishful thinking than an immutable plan.
When you show different directions to clients, they choose the one they like the most. And they do actually like it at that given point in time. But the power of what we do lies in people seeing things visually. Things that they couldn’t see before. This means that once you see a big chunk of a report designed in the agreed style, you may only realise then and there that it doesn’t work.
This is what happened with the IOM report as well. Initially, I suggested a monochrome style for the document based on IOM’s main blue. I thought we could use patterns instead of colours for the charts and make pictures monochrome, too. But as we produced about a quarter of the report in this style, the team felt it looked a little too grim and we ended up adding colour to brighten things up.
It was a little painful to completely switch gears in the middle of a design project, but I’m learning to surrender to this iterative process. It’s happening with other projects, too. I’m learning to kill my darlings. At any stage of the project.
Stick to the process
A lot of people in the field will tell you they have a design process. I’m sure you have one too. I know I do. But sometimes, when deep into a project, we can forget about that process to just go with the flow. And that’s when things go sideways.
Normally, I aim to get approval on a chart prototype before making the final design. For efficiency’s sake. For this project, however, I got sidetracked. On the one hand, I thought I had more creative liberty than I really did. And on the other, it’s easier to convince someone a specific chart type works when you show a complete design—with colours, legends, and annotations. So I went ahead and designed a dozen charts instead of simply prototyping them. Boy was that a mistake.
The team and I ended up reviewing quite a few of them, making sure we delivered on two criteria: effectiveness and diversity. For a large-scale project like this, it’s important to make sure each chart conveys the information in a comprehensible manner. But you also need to keep the readers engaged, so everything cannot be a bar chart. Next time, I think I’ll probably make some sort of matrix to track this: list all the visualisation types used and calculate the proportion of those that are easy to read vs. the more advanced ones. And definitely start with prototypes.
All in all, this project was just as rewarding as it was challenging. I learned a lot not only about migration but also about myself as a designer. I’ll be making a bigger effort to streamline my process in the future. And I also won’t look at designs made by others the same way—you never know what constraints they had to deal with.
As always, thanks so much for reading The Plot! 🔖
See you next week,
P.S. If you haven’t read my piece on giving feedback, check it out. I wrote it while working on this UN project.
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