How "How It Works" Works
Imagine being handed a gizmo and asked to come up with a clean
visual description of what it looks like, what it does and how
it works, all fitting neatly into a prescribed space. At
the New York Times, Frank O'Connell does just that. I asked
Frank about how the illustrations for the paper's popular
"How It Works" technology feature come together.
F. F. Tell us, how does the process begin? Is it
collaborative between you and the editors or writers?
F. O'C. The process is very much a collaborative
effort between myself and Henry Fountain, who is the editor of this
feature. Henry has a great design sense.
Once we decide on a subject, I'll contact the vendor,
explain what we're planning to do and ask the vendor to send us the
product. Sometimes this is impractical because of the device's size
or value. In that case, I'll request line drawings or digital
photographs instead. I always prefer to take apart the object
myself, since it gives me a better understanding of how the parts
fit together. This way I can assure myself of the accuracy of my
illustration. I'll also ask for any technical manuals and media kits
the vendor has, so that I can familiarize myself with how the
When the materials arrive, Henry and I meet to discuss
which aspects of the product we want to show. In the case of an
exploded-view graphic, I often find it preferable to disassemble the
device and get the 3-D illustration well under way first. That way
I'll know exactly which components I'll have to draw, and I can
experiment to find the best positioning and lighting before
committing to a layout.
I'll then render the illustration at a low resolution
and design my final layout around it, using blocks of dummy text
with relevant labels, and go over these with Henry, who writes the captions.
When I first started doing this feature, the story had
usually already been written before I began my illustration. I would
interact a great deal with the writers and often use their sources.
But over the years, the procedure has changed, and more often than
not, I do my own reporting, and the graphic is well under way before
the story is filed.
F. F. Tell us about your editing process. Do you
first create a hierarchy of information?
F. O'C. Henry and I first decide which element will
be the main focus. Then we discuss any step-by-step or closeup
graphics that will be needed. Because of the amount of space we have
to work with, we're able to have a fairly large disparity in size
between the main and secondary elements, yet still have the
secondary elements large enough to convey useful information.
Not all of our graphics are exploded views or cutaways.
Several have involved large outdoor scenes, as when we explained how
a bridge de-icing system works. We've also done views of Earth from
space, as when we featured the Global Positioning System. But even
in these cases, the overall hierarchy of a large dominant visual
supplemented by smaller graphics was the same.