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David Griffin: Visual Storytelling At Its Best From A Multi-Faceted Photographer, Editor, Creative Director, Graphic Designer & All-Around Nice Guy – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With David Griffin

December 14, 2015

“There’s an advantage with print in that it is wholly an intimate and static environment by which you can consume the content, so as your reading it’s quiet and it’s intimate. And the looking at photographs and the movement of photographs in print also has an intimacy and quietness to it. Whereas on the web, it’s unfortunate that you consume the web generally on a device that also is being used for a lot of other things like email and text messaging, phone calls and everything else that’s coming in to that device and hence that quietness I was talking about is broken. And it becomes a more disruptive environment and because of that, words and static pictures have a tendency to feel lacking, particularly when you’ve got everything else buzzing and speaking and making noise and moving all around it.” David Griffin

(Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

(Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

From photography to editing and design, David Griffin is a multi-talented man, whose career wingspan reaches across many creative miles, including art director of The Hartford Courant; art director of the Sunday magazine of The Philadelphia Inquirer; design director of NG Books; and creative director of US News & World Report. He was also director of photography of National Geographic magazine, before going on to become executive editor for e-publishing at the National Geographic Society, and visuals editor of The Washington Post where he oversaw the visual journalism created by the design, photography, video, graphics and digital teams.

Today David is the principle owner of DGriffinStudio, which specializes in publication design, branding strategy, and visual media consulting. To say that he knows a thing or two about more than one facet of media publishing would be a numerical truth that no one could deny.

His concept of visual storytelling is one that incorporates the power of the image into the actual text of the story; a marriage of sorts that produces stunning visuals that only enhance and augment the words to a brilliant consummation of the duo’s individual beauty and effect.

I spoke with David recently about his career journey (no pun intended) as he’s currently working with Smithsonian’s latest magazine, Journeys, within the framework of his own self-imposed freelance-dom where he his king of his own time and interests. His joy at being able to actually create again, rather than manage, was very evident as we talked about the many hats he’d worn and the ultimate full-circle his creative life had taken.

It was a deeply interesting and knowledgeable trek inside the mind of a creative master who knows what it takes to connect with a reader and reach human emotions on every level.

I hope you enjoy this in depth discussion on the art of visual storytelling as only a person who has lived it and created it can tell. And now the Mr. Magazine™ interview with David Griffin.

But first, the sound-bites:

David Griffin_Casual On whether he thinks we’re doing a better job today using visuals in the art of storytelling than we did 10 years ago: In general, I think there’s recognition at even the highest levels at most publications that visual storytelling is an important component of how you connect with an audience. That said, I do think that there’s something troubling underneath of it that shouldn’t be ignored, in that the profession of creating images for that kind of interaction has become exceedingly tough as budgets have been cut and the general sense that images are worth less, not worthless in their use, but that you don’t have to pay as much for images, partly because of the perceived idea that there are so many more images now available because of social media.

On whether he believes that editors and publishers today only pay lip service to the value of visuals when it comes to content: That’s hard to say, because I’d need to know the individuals who are saying it, because I think that there are some editors who do believe it and also dedicate resources to that belief. But when it comes to budgets and allocations of money to not only photographers, but also professional photo editors or quality printing, all things that are very important to the visuals; do they allocate those resources when they’re under stress? I’m not so sure that always happens.

On whether visual storytelling can be done in both digital and print platforms or is one better than the other in delivery: In terms of delivery; I don’t think there’s any difference. There’s a difference in the experience, but they both have their own attributes. I don’t particularly think one is better than the other. One of the beauties of digital of course is that it’s infinitely expandable, so you’re not restricted by the finite needs of print. But that can also lead to sloppy editing, so there’s a bit of a downside to that; you might think that you could just publish everything. There’s an advantage with print in that it is wholly an intimate and static environment by which you can consume the content, so as your reading it’s quiet and it’s intimate. And the looking at photographs and the movement of photographs in print also has an intimacy and quietness to it.

On his concept of visual storytelling and how he implements it into his work: Generally I start out by sitting down with whatever the content or the story is, which the most preferable place is at the beginning before the content or the story has actually been written. You want to sit down with someone and talk about what they’re hoping to go do because if you’re working at any publication, it’s important to first determine how important the story is to the publication because that can make a big difference.

On whether he considers himself a photographer first, a designer second and an editor third: No, I’m a designer first; it’s just that I have a very strong love of photography. I didn’t work as a professional photographer long enough; I was a newspaper photographer for the first five years of my career. So, I don’t feel like I earned those chops anymore. But my love for it is there. And because of my involvement at National Geographic, which is so heavily focused on photography; it became an area that I fell into.

On which he loves working on more, newspapers or magazines and some of the differences between the two: The difference is just pace. And I would absolutely say that I’m much more of a magazine person. I love the information of newspapers and I love the medium of it, but in terms of what I do in working with visuals and doing more long-range projects, magazines are just basically more oriented toward that.

On the information speed age we’re living in and who’s trying to catch up to whom; us or the audience: They’re different candles that you’re feeding; the day-to-day, now down to minute-by-minute of the world. And you even see newspapers which are on a 24-hr. cycle, struggling with the fact that they’ve almost lost control of the daily feed because of Twitter. When something breaks now it’s no longer about going to pick up a newspaper and see what they did with it, it’s more usual to see what happened on their phones right in their hands.

On if someone showed up at his house unexpectedly, what they would find him doing, reading a magazine, looking at his iPad or watching TV: Probably reading a magazine. I’m an avid magazine reader. I love magazines. I also read a lot online with an iPad. I definitely do that too. And I read print books and online books as well. It just depends on my mood. I don’t like to carry something with me when I’m traveling. But I consume it all.

On what motivates him to get out of bed in the mornings: Whatever the projects are; I’m on. It’s terrible, but I get up sometimes as early as 3:00 a.m. I’m not a night person. So, I tend to go to bed at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evenings. And honestly I’m a horrible morning person, just ask my wife. I set my day at full-speed and then it’s just one long slide to bed. I don’t have peaks and valleys; I peak the moment I get up. I get up often eager to get started on projects, so I work for two or three hours in the mornings before my wife gets up. Then I help her get off to work and then go back to work myself.

On what keeps him up at night: Flooding details; that’s mostly it. The downside of anything is that you have many clients and they’re all not in coordination with each other and you’re never allowed to tell one that you’re working for the other. So, it’s the balancing of it.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with David Griffin.

Samir Husni: I know your love for storytelling and using visuals within that art form; what do you think is the status today when it comes to using visuals in the art of storytelling, whether it’s in newspapers or magazines? Do you think that we’re doing a better job today than we did 10 years ago?

David Griffin: In general, I think there’s recognition at even the highest levels at most publications that visual storytelling is an important component of how you connect with an audience.

That said, I do think that there’s something troubling underneath of it that shouldn’t be ignored, in that the profession of creating images for that kind of interaction has become exceedingly tough as budgets have been cut and the general sense that images are worth less, not worthless in their use, but that you don’t have to pay as much for images, partly because of the perceived idea that there are so many more images now available because of social media. It has an unfortunate echo into the profession; basically people thinking that anybody can take any given picture. It’s like looking at a Picasso and saying, I could have done that, but you didn’t.

Since I’m involved in the photographic community and such a lover of visual storytelling, it’s been troubling and hard to watch individuals that I’ve known for years struggling, to be honest, to make a living or trying to get the resources and commitment to the time being given to people in the field. And of course what it comes down to is money, because most people are paid by day rates. So, there’s a great part to it and a bad part to it. It’s not an easy answer because of those two parts.

Samir Husni: Every editor and publisher that I speak with keeps reminding me that we live in a visual age; we live in a digital age. And they highlight the importance of digital so much, but do you think it’s just lip service?

Screen shot 2015-12-14 at 10.58.31 AM David Griffin: That’s hard to say, because I’d need to know the individuals who are saying it, because I think that there are some editors who do believe it and also dedicate resources to that belief. And I also believe that there are editors out there who say it because they know to be an editor in today’s world means that you’re not going to get up and say that you can do a publication only with words, because they know the publisher higher up would probably get rid of them.

But when it comes to budgets and allocations of money to not only photographers, but also professional photo editors or quality printing, all things that are very important to the visuals; do they allocate those resources when they’re under stress? I’m not so sure that always happens.

Most editors started as reporters and writers, so when decisions have to be made regarding budget cuts, they tend to cut the visuals first because it’s not their home. Even though they know the importance of it, they also believe, and probably partly rightly, strong reporting and strong writing is also something that has to be protected. I’m not saying that there’s any kind of conspiracy; I’m just saying that it’s human nature for people who are in charge and come from a certain background to assume the importance of their original roots over one that they have grown to learn the importance of because of changes in readers’ habits.

Samir Husni: David, I know that your background is in photography, graphic design, art directing and editing. And when you and I were in South Africa at the Media 24 Summit, your presentation was on that visual storytelling that is so important to you. Can you expand a little on what that whole concept of visual storytelling is and can it be done on both the digital platform and on ink on paper, or one is better than the other in that delivery?

David Griffin: In terms of delivery; I don’t think there’s any difference. There’s a difference in the experience, but they both have their own attributes. I don’t particularly think one is better than the other.

One of the beauties of digital of course is that it’s infinitely expandable, so you’re not restricted by the finite needs of print. But that can also lead to sloppy editing, so there’s a bit of a downside to that; you might think that you could just publish everything. Well, you could, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

There’s an advantage with print in that it is wholly an intimate and static environment by which you can consume the content, so as your reading it’s quiet and it’s intimate. And the looking at photographs and the movement of photographs in print also has an intimacy and quietness to it. Whereas on the web, it’s unfortunate that you consume the web generally on a device that also is being used for a lot of other things like email and text messaging, phone calls and everything else that’s coming in to that device and hence that quietness I was talking about is broken. And it becomes a more disruptive environment and because of that, words and static pictures have a tendency to feel lacking, particularly when you’ve got everything else buzzing and speaking and making noise and moving all around it.

I do think it takes a level of discipline by someone who is dedicated to the love of and the intimacy of reading and consuming that way to want to ignore all of the noise and still consume on a digital device. It comes down to, if you ignore the entire periphery, all the potential distractions, I don’t think that there’s a significant difference between print and digital when it comes to the actual I’m-focusing-on-this-story-right-at-this-moment-and-everything-else-is-out-of-my-periphery. It’s like the difference between trying to read a novel on a subway versus sitting in your home in a reading room. It would be a similar kind of environment. You have to willfully decide you’re going to ignore the noise to be able to consume it.

Samir Husni: Tell me a little about your concept of visual storytelling and how you actually implement it into your work.

Screen shot 2015-12-14 at 10.59.51 AM David Griffin: Generally I start out by sitting down with whatever the content or the story is, which the most preferable place is at the beginning before the content or the story has actually been written. You want to sit down with someone and talk about what they’re hoping to go do because if you’re working at any publication, it’s important to first determine how important the story is to the publication because that can make a big difference. If an editor says I love this story; it’s fantastic and I want it to be the cover that tells you certain things about what you’re going to want to do.

Whereas if the editor says I kind of like this story, but I’m not so sure about it; then you’re going to scale your effort to that initial expectation. Obviously, as a journalist if you fall into a great story, even if an editor didn’t believe it was going to be a great story, you still can scale up of course, and hopefully the editor will realize it’s better than what was originally expected and they’ll flex to give it more space or more play.

So it starts with that conversation about what the expectations are for the story and then off people go into the field to produce the work. And then when you come back; in general, I’d like an environment that’s, assuming that it’s a classic writer/photographer situation, it’s sitting down with both and if the writer has created a manuscript or generally a rough draft, you want to sit down and read that and look at it. Then it’s time to start selecting the photographs, not with the idea, and this is the important part; the selection of the photographs should move with the text; they certainly should try to come to the same conclusion, Generally, a writer and a photographer in the field together are communicating, the pictures should be perceiving what the story is on similar lines.

But photographs are different in that they bring atmosphere and emotion and different elements than sometimes the words do; they can all do similar things, but they do them in different ways. And so you don’t want to just select photographs because the writer wrote about something and you feel you need to include a picture of it. I think that’s a very dangerous way to go about selecting photographs, particularly if that forces you into selecting subpar images merely to reinforce something that the writer has written about.

And vice-versa, if the photographer falls into a great situation that the writer did not get to see, it’s OK to let the photographs carry that situation and show it. That’s what good captions are for.

So, there’s a dance there that you do. I tend to like to read the manuscript, get a sense of where it’s going, and then edit the photographs based purely on the photographs and talking to the photographer about what they experienced and then when you’re sitting down with the core selection of images, then we sit there and say OK, we have certain images that marry up with the text; let’s try to make sure that we pace along with that, because a reader’s experience should be that the pacing of the images matches to some degree, but not an absolute this-picture-must-appear-on-this-page kind of thing, because I think that’s crazy. No one is perceiving things in that way. Generally folks, from my experience, want to look through the photographs first and then they go back and read the text. So, they are experienced at different times and in different ways.

Then the issue of design comes in. I’m very big on making sure that you select the images without thinking about design. One of the mistakes that I try to avoid myself is coming up with some design that I feel like I want to do for the story and then trying to find pictures that fit into that design. I look at it the other way around; I tend to try and find the images, get them in the right order, into something that makes sense, just like organizing a story, and then I step back and ask what are the common design elements with this set of photographs that will help them to show off their best?

There are some images that you choose because of the text, and maybe those are not the greatest images, but those are pictures that you look at and say I really want to be able to see this person that they talked to for 27 paragraphs, but it’s not a good picture of them. You don’t reject the picture, you just say that’s a picture that’s not going to run big, but I will try to run it if it’s important to the experience.

And you make those kinds of decisions as you go along, whereas the photographer hits some incredible situation that’s full of emotion and texture and really makes someone feel like they’re there and it also matches the text; well that becomes a big picture. It becomes something that’s a cornerstone for the coverage. So you let those two elements, the manuscript and the images almost weigh themselves out.

Samir Husni: Do you consider yourself a photographer first, a designer second, an editor third?

Screen shot 2015-12-14 at 11.01.18 AM David Griffin: No, I’m a designer first; it’s just that I have a very strong love of photography. I didn’t work as a professional photographer long enough; I was a newspaper photographer for the first five years of my career. So, I don’t feel like I earned those chops anymore. But my love for it is there. And because of my involvement at National Geographic, which is so heavily focused on photography; it became an area that I fell into.

I don’t consider myself a brilliant designer. I consider myself someone who understands photography and how to make those photographs stand out. My feeling is that as a designer, my best job is when you don’t notice the design. I’m always trying to think about how I can simplify whatever it is that I’m designing so that it’s not about me showing off the latest typeface that I’ve figured out or some graphic technique that I really want to impress somebody with. I worry about trying to get everything to step back so that the images step forward, because ultimately photography is the part that touches people. It’s one of the most powerful mediums for connecting to humans on that emotional, gut level. And you want to play that up as much as possible.

And talking about covers; a great line from Roger Black was, and I may not have this exactly right: 90% of making a great cover is choosing the right photograph, which I think is absolutely true. You can sit there and talk all about design and typography, logos and colors and all the cell lines that you’d want to put on there and titles and everything else, but if you have a bad photograph, you’re sunk.

For me as a designer, and this goes back to what I was talking about before, getting into the story ahead of time; I feel like where you want to put your effort is in the creation of the images that you’re going to end up working with, because if you have great material, then the job of being a designer is just that much easier. So, I guess I do that for the sake of making up for the fact that I don’t think I’m that great of a designer. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too).

David Griffin: I want to make sure that I have really good work, and then I can sneak by as a designer.

Samir Husni: David, you’ve worked in newspapers and at magazines. Which did you enjoy the most and was it easier to work at a newspaper or harder than working on a magazine? And what are some of the differences?

David Griffin: The difference is just pace. And I would absolutely say that I’m much more of a magazine person. I love the information of newspapers and I love the medium of it, but in terms of what I do in working with visuals and doing more long-range projects, magazines are just basically more oriented toward that.

I always did feel that at some point for newspapers to compete, they were going to have to become more like magazines and you suddenly see that happening. Design at newspapers has gotten better over the years and that’s a direct influence of more magazine type thinking. You see that in how they’re organized and in the mere fact that newspapers have started hiring creative directors and design directors over the last 20 years. And that shows that they too recognize that they’ve got to be upping their game visually.

But in terms of me personally, I like working on magazines more than anything because they don’t have to be done that same day. I’m notorious for waking up the next morning and coming up with a much better idea than the original one. (Laughs) I might favor a weekly news magazine, but unfortunately that’s a genre that has very little purpose anymore. When I worked at U.S. News that was absolutely my favorite time because it was still high-paced; it still fed off of the news, but we had two or three days to kind of change and adjust things and tweak them and give them a little more craft.

And as I’ve gotten older too, I’m much more into the craft of making different media forms. I also like digital, I find it interesting. It’s a little hard on the craft level because it’s so fluent, but I do like it for those attributes it brings to itself. Anything where I can up that game, I’m interested in. Newspapers tend to be, when you’re definitely in the middle of them; they move so quickly it’s just so hard to stop and refine things on them on a day-to-day basis; you can do it on a longer term.

When I was at a newspaper I always felt that I was behind; I was never on top of anything, whereas at a magazine I really enjoy the pace much more.

Screen shot 2015-12-14 at 11.03.32 AM Samir Husni: And you’re latest project is working with the Smithsonian Journeys Magazine. It’s a quarterly for now. And it’s a wonderful combination of photography and typography and illustrations.

David Griffin: Thank you.

Samir Husni: Do you feel that good design and good photography still needs that time to process, to create, in this speed age that we live in? We’ve moved from a coal-powered train to a nuclear-powered one. Do you think the audience can catch up or are we the ones trying to keep up with the audience? Who’s moving faster, us or our audience?

David Griffin: They’re different candles that you’re feeding; the day-to-day, now down to minute-by-minute of the world. And you even see newspapers which are on a 24-hr. cycle, struggling with the fact that they’ve almost lost control of the daily feed because of Twitter. When something breaks now it’s no longer about going to pick up a newspaper and see what they did with it, it’s more usual to see what happened on their phones right in their hands.

So the images that go along with those stories are whatever happened to the catcher. That’s one of the changes of being a professional photographer because it used to be that one of the definitions of being a professional photographer was that you were there. It used to be the old adage “f/8 and be there” but the be there part is no longer an advantage because the public is there and so are all of those phones that are quite capable of taking good enough images of what that news is at that moment. So, there is that aspect of it.

But in terms of the time that can be dedicated to the creation of the images, it doesn’t matter what cycle you’re publishing on, if you learn to dedicate time you can. I worked at the Post where we sent photographers into the field for a month-long project. It would publish in one day, but the fact that it was being worked on for a month, or sometimes two or three months, the reader didn’t see that part of it and that was just a matter of scheduling and making sure that you backed up far enough. National Geographic started doing stories three or four years before they were published, but again, the public doesn’t see that, all they see is the published piece.

National Geographic was a monthly; Journeys is a quarterly; a newspaper is a daily, but the material that feeds into that publishing cycle can start at any time. So the idea that somehow because you’re a daily you have less time; I don’t know if that’s actually true in terms of bigger projects. Not day-to-day reporting of fires and accidents, things like that. That’s spot news and you chase that material, but in terms of material that is real visual storytelling, there’s no real effect by the publication cycle on how long you decide to dedicate to that. It’s really a matter of your budget and whether you have the money to support any of those kinds of projects.

Samir Husni: If I showed up at your house unexpectedly and you were relaxing with a glass of wine in your hand; would I find you reading a magazine or looking at your iPad or watching TV?

David Griffin: Probably reading a magazine. I’m an avid magazine reader. I love magazines. I also read a lot online with an iPad. I definitely do that too. And I read print books and online books as well. It just depends on my mood. I don’t like to carry something with me when I’m traveling. But I consume it all.

I don’t watch much television anymore though. If I’ve had an exhausting day and I don’t want to do anything else, television has that numbing effect. I can’t say that I watch much television news; I’m mostly an NPR person and then I read a lot. I get both print newspapers, the Times and the Post every day. And I read them religiously. And even though I know that’s all available online, I do like the ritual of print. Plus I’m a crossword puzzle nut and so I’ve never found an online version of The New York Times crossword puzzle that was as satisfying as the print one. (Laughs) Even though I know I could subscribe and print it out, it’s not the same. I like newspapers in print. It’s very tactile. I’m old-school that way. But I consume across a lot of different platforms.

Samir Husni: What motivates you to get out of bed in the mornings?

David Griffin: Whatever the projects are; I’m on. It’s terrible, but I get up sometimes as early as 3:00 a.m. I’m not a night person. So, I tend to go to bed at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evenings.

And honestly I’m a horrible morning person, just ask my wife. I set my day at full-speed and then it’s just one long slide to bed. I don’t have peaks and valleys; I peak the moment I get up. I get up often eager to get started on projects, so I work for two or three hours in the mornings before my wife gets up. Then I help her get off to work and then go back to work myself.

But usually by the early afternoon I tend to slow down. It’s interesting when you’re no longer tied to the structure of an office, which I have been for my entire career. I had worked at media companies, but now I have the freedom to allow myself to fall into my own natural rhythm. Sometimes when I get up in the mornings I’m just so excited to be putting together something.

And what I really enjoy about making this change in my life is that I’m actually making things again, because really for the last 15 years I’ve been managing really large, visual teams. I would sneak InDesign in when I could, but it was always sneaking it in; it was something that I did on a weekend or when I did a book project once a year or something like that. It wasn’t a primary thing.

But now being able to create things with my own hands again is just so wonderful and plus the tools today are so fantastic. I struggled through going from analog to digital and was a big proponent of desktop publishing when it first came in; I actually helped usher it into National Geographic when they were doing things by hand paste there. And so I’ve always been an eager lover and somewhat hater of technology, because it was never as fluid as I would have liked it to be, but it’s become so much more fluid.

Plus you can learn anything online now too. Someone asked me to do a motion graphic for them, like a motion title sequence, and when you’re doing branding work you have to start determining how a logo works. And I didn’t really know how to do a motion graphic. (Laughs) But I sat down and it didn’t take me more than a day with Lynda.com to learn it. And Adobe has all of these fantastic tutorials online and I learn aftereffects; I’m not a whiz at it, but I can certainly wedge my way through something and actually do it.

And that kind of thing you used to have to farm out; there were so many other people that you had to be involved with to create a publication, but so much of that has come back full-circle to a craftsperson’s environment. It’s exciting. I’m having a great time. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

David Griffin: Flooding details; that’s mostly it. The downside of anything is that you have many clients and they’re all not in coordination with each other and you’re never allowed to tell one that you’re working for the other. So, it’s the balancing of it.

I’ve been very lucky. This is my anniversary right now of my first year doing freelance. The Journeys project was certainly a Godsend to me, in terms of being a solid contractual base with them. So, it gives me something to take away the worry of finances.

And I’ve just had a nice string of wonderful different and diverse projects, from branding to several book projects that I have going. None of them are public yet because they’re still struggling to get publishers. And I’ve helped photographers put together bodies of their work in a rough form so that they can sell them to publishers. I’m also working on a couple of website designs.

It’s a whole varied range of material, which to me has been the nicest thing; it’s not just one thing. My goal is, I don’t ever want to stop doing the design, so I am definitely watching my time. It can be very dangerous because you don’t want to ever say no to anything in the freelance world, but I also don’t want to get myself overloaded to where I’m short shifting any one of my clients. I just don’t want to pass off things. At this point in my career I want to do the work myself. I’m selfish, but I’m also very picky about things. And when I give work to other people, I spend more time trying to get them to do it the way I want it done, than if I’d just done it myself.

And that does come back to the beauty of these new tools. Literally, if I have a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection, I can work from almost anywhere. And that’s also really terrific. But I try not to let too many things keep me up at night. Things are always going to get resolved. Things that used to keep me up at night were personnel issues. Now I manage three cats; that’s my staff. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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