My two weeks in Nairobi just flew by.
I worked pretty hard. And I found myself having difficulty breathing and sleeping. Because of the high altitude, perhaps. But also, perhaps, of stuff blooming. I’m not quite sure.
Nairobi sits very near the Equator. July and August are typically the coolest months of the year — and the place doesn’t get all that cool by my standards. I’d find myself dining comfortably at the open-air Thorn Tree Cafe while the guest at the next table over shivered in front of a space heater.
Although most of the two weeks I stayed there was cloudy, I still found the place to have a beauty of its own. I need to go back to Nairobi some day and get a better look around.
This trip, however, I was there to work. And work I did. On Tuesday, we held yet another repeat of one of my most popular sessions: Graphics for Word People.
The point is to show reporters, editors and copy desk staffers — which are often called “subeditors” in these parts — just what infographics can do — and cannot do — for their stories.
Part of my big mission for these sessions: To help folks understand that graphics are not for decoration and not to fill space.
Real infographics tell stories. If it doesn’t tell a story well, then an infographic is just a nice-looking piece of crap.
Illustrations and sketches have their place — in fact, we covered that well the previous Friday. But if that’s all you’re using your artists for, then you’re missing out on the real power of the medium. So, of course, I illustrate my presentation with examples of some of the best visual journalism I can find.
Monday — and again on Thursday — I gave a session on online graphics and presentation. Which, for this audience — which is just now thinking about an online strategy — means filling them in on the trends around the world.
And that means having internet access for my presentation. Which I didn’t have.
So the online editor here was kind enough to loan me a 3G dongle, which proved to be easy to use.
It’s certainly not a high-speed connection — which I found out the hard way when I tried to pull in a number of videos and complex multimedia projects.
But it was probably a fair way to view my talk. Because bandwidth in Kenya is not really very large to begin with. Meaning readers here will have the same problem if the papers here build complicated online presentations.
Some of the issues I touched upon: Keep everything simple, for now, until bandwith increases. Avoid using Flash. And — because they’re just now starting to build their web infrastructure — switch from HTML 4 to HTML 5 so they can utilize responsive web design.
I can’t get Miranda Mulligan to visit my class and talk about the Boston Globe‘s innovative work with responsive web design. But I can show a YouTube video of her talking about it at the South by Southwest conference back in March.
I wrote last week that I was spending the afternoons critiquing individual portfolios with the designers at the Nation group.
The group’s design director, Kathy Bogan, set me up at this little table in her office, where I was called upon by designers throughout the week.
Kathy, meanwhile, plugged away at her own work, dashed in and out to deal with various matters and to attend news meetings.
By the way, what do you doodle in a news meeting at a Kenyan newspaper? Giraffes, evidently.
Typically, we had anywhere from two to four designers scheduled to come in at 30-minute intervals. They’d bring me a thumb drive with PDFs of their work. And I’d offer comments off the top of my head as to their skills and ideas. I’d show them what I liked about their work as well as point out things that might be better.
This, for example, is Nzisa, who specializes in features pages. We held her critique on Wednesday.
And here I am back on Tuesday with Joy. Who most certainly was a joy — she, too, is a wonderfully talented features designer.
Joy has a wonderful sense of color and she knows how to play a picture big and then not do anything that might get in its way. So I spent much of our time together just gushing over her work.
The paper’s photo director was kind enough to pick up my camera and take these pictures. We chatted briefly about pictures we don’t like to see — like the old “grip and grin” — so, naturally, we had to drop everything and shoot one.
On the wall of the cubicle next door, an editor has posted examples of truly terrible headline writing.
Yep. Even newspapers here in Kenya need copy editors.
Thursday evening, there was some sort of issue with my room that I never quite understood. So I was asked to move to a somewhat larger room on the 6th floor, just for my last night there. I didn’t manage to sleep any better, but I was treated to a nicer view of downtown Nairobi.
In fact, the headquarters building of the Nation News Group — two very strange cylindrical towers and all — was just outside my window.
On my way to my final day of work, I paused and shot a quick picture of this sidewalk news vendor.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s one reason why newspapers just don’t sell as well in the U.S. It helps, I think, to have the personal touch on the sales end.
After our Friday morning slideshow lecture — on politics and election coverage; one of my specialties — Kathy called all the designers together for a roundtable discussion — around our round table — and asked each one what they took away from these two weeks.
Much to my delight, each designer cited things that are among the core issues I try hard to bring to nearly every session I teach. Storytelling. Focus on content. Accuracy. Proactivity on the part of designers and graphic artists.
It was so cool to just sit there for a while and see all my major talking points spit back out, reinterpreted though the lens of these fine folks. They soaked up everything quite nicely.
It was one of those moments when I realize just how much good we can do if we’re able to go out into the world and share our experience with others. What a great feeling.
And what a great feeling to see it proven that my time here was well-spent.
As if that wasn’t enough, at that very moment, Kathy and her newspaper had caterers bring in lunch. So we all got a chance to chat in one last social setting before I had to depart.
Lunch was chicken, lightly-spiced rice with gravy and potatoes.
Then, it was time to say my goodbyes. One of my biggest joys this trip was meeting Muhammad Tamale, graphics editor of the Daily Monitor, the Nation News Group’s paper in Uganda.
The challenge after things like this is to stay in touch. This has been made easier these days with Facebook and Twitter.
We posed for one giant group shot — photographed by the guy from catering — before we broke up. Please click this for a huge look.
And then it was time to head to the hotel, retrieve my luggage and then begin the trek to the next stop on this little tour is one very familiar with me: Johannesburg.
More about that later…
I spent two weeks consulting and teaching infographics and visual journalism in Nairobi, Kenya.
My trip blog, so far:
- Friday, July 20: Leaving today for my next consulting assignment: Kenya
- Saturday, July 21: Hello from Paris
- Sunday, July 22: The last leg of my trip to Nairobi
- Monday, July 23: A Sunday stroll around downtown Nairobi
- Thursday, July 26: Why manufacturers of customized hotel towels need a copy editor
- Sunday, July 29: A Saturday spent at the famous Thorn Tree Cafe
- Sunday, July 29: The Exchange Bar here in the Stanley Hotel has a new fan
- Monday, July 30: Life as a traveling infographics instructor and evangelist in Kenya
- Wednesday, Aug. 1: Good day, Sunshine
- Thursday, Aug. 2: Here, ‘KFC’ stands for Kenyan Fried Chicken. I think.