Mexico's Pictoline engages audiences by explaining complex issues with intelligent, fun graphic communication

This story is part of a series on Innovative Journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.(*)

When Eduardo Salles co-founded Pictoline at the end of 2015, he was not trying to explain the world with “little drawings.” Rather, the challenge was to use design as a tool to make information relevant and understandable for all people.

Salles, a 29-year-old former advertising creative from Mexico City, fervently believes that if society in Mexico and Latin America is uninformed, it is not out of ignorance or disinterest, as is generally believed, but because information is not presented in the correct format.

“That philosophy comes a bit from my trauma in school. Many students do not understand things, not because they are stupid, but because they were not taught the issues well.  You have a society that grows up believing it is stupid because [teachers] never knew how to explain things well,” Salles told the Knight Center.

“That phenomenon also occurs in society. We talk about complex issues like inflation, politics[...] and people say ‘I don’t understand you, it must be because I am a fool, so it’s better to look at memes and kittens.’ We think that they don’t understand because they do not care and it’s because we are not talking in the language and way they consume.”

Pictoline, in the words of its co-founder and director, is an information design company that, through illustrations, infographics and cartoons published in social networks, explains the news of the day, scientific theories or international phenomena.

Its almost immediate success has led Pictoline to accumulate 2.5 million social media followers, and it has won international prizes like the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers’ (WAN-IFRA) awards for Best Data Visualization Project and Best Reader Engagement. Pictoline took home this last award not only at the LatAM Digital Media Awards, but also at WAN-IFRA’s World Digital Media Awards.

Salles attributes the success to the great power of design when it is used correctly.

“When things are poorly designed, the human being believes that it is their fault. Like the example of the door: you push it when you should pull it, and you think ‘I’m a fool.’ But no, a door does not have to have this problem of ‘pull’ and ‘push,’” he said.

Salles continued: “The problems that exist in industrial design or in the design of public space are also present in the design of information. We assume that it is well-designed because it has always been that way and we want people to read it. We [at Pictoline] believe that we need to redesign the experience to make it more interesting and easier for the user to consume the information.”

Pictoline is made up of a team of 12 designers, editors, brand managers and programmers who work in a single office in Colonia Roma, one of Mexico City’s oldest neighborhoods.

Each illustration – or “bacon,” as the Pictoline team calls it in reference to the pig that they have for a logo – is produced after a creative process that begins with an editorial meeting in which the team reviews the news of the day and mention suggestions of other subjects, whether or not they are present in current journalistic coverage.

After deciding on content, the creative team determines the status of the subject among people: is it already popular knowledge, is there disinformation or does it require more context in order to be fully understood.

“It is important to understand the situation of information at that time. Launching the information just to launch it is the old method,” Salles said. “Today there is so much overproduction of information that you need to step back and think what it is that people need to understand about this information. Once we have that, we begin to come up with ideas of how we can do it, how we can design it.”

As extra quality control, before publishing each “bacon,” Pictoline consults with external specialists ranging from physicists, mathematicians, economists or political scientists, who review the product to guarantee its accuracy. The process for creating each illustration can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several days, depending on the nature of the information and its complexity.

To make Pictoline a reality, Eduardo Salles presented his idea to Gustavo Guzmán, investor of Mexican media like publishing house Sexto Piso and newspaper Máspormás, who believed in the project and decided to invest.

The expected results came, and, a little more than a year after launching, the project started to yield its first fruits. To ensure its survival, Pictoline plans to explore new business models this 2017.

Each "bacon" goes through a creative process that can take anywhere from two hours to several days.

One of them is advertising, but not in the forced and invasive way it is presented most of the time on the internet. Pictoline will seek to test a model of native advertising that fits naturally with its creations and that adds some usefulness for the reader.

“I feel that advertising is conceptualized as a communication to annoy people: they open the pop-up, the banner, the fake news article opens [...] It seems to be synonymous with annoyance. We do not want to go with that model, because it does not serve the user, does not serve the media and does not serve the advertiser,” Salles said. “If a brand wants to advertise with Pictoline, it has to offer what Pictoline offers, which is information. We must teach brands how the information they have can be useful for people, and not just information that seeks to sell. When you are useful is when you become necessary. It is no longer invasive advertising, it is advertising in which you offer something to the user. You’re not just demanding that they buy something.”

In addition to advertising, Pictoline will seek to apply its strategy and creativity in other areas, beyond the media and internet, and make a business of it. And the first tracks that they have in mind are education and organizational communication.

“We have developed a theory and tools that allow us to take information, design it and make it easy to understand, relevant and easy to share. Our concept is the design of information. All the know-how we are developing is an asset that can be applied to other sectors, like education,” Salles explained. “If you see Pictoline as a multi-pronged information design company, the business models are no longer just media-driven, but are on a broader spectrum.”

During the first days of this year, the start-up made its first attempt in the cultural field by launching a series of “bacons” to serve as a book club. It will recommend a book each week through a graphic piece about one concept of the book.

In a country whose inhabitants only read on average 3.8 books a year, according to the National Institute of Geography and Statistics of Mexico (INEGI for its acronym in Spanish), a reading club would seem like an unpromising project. However, Salles believes that the key is in how to motivate people to read.

“We want people to see a subject and want to read that book. People are not lazy or stupid. These are all clichés they've gotten us to believe. Rather, it has not been designed in a way so they get interested in these things,” he said. “At school, it is not the child’s fault that the book is designed in a  way that makes it totally boring and tedious. How can we redesign that information so the child finds physics, chemistry, mechatronics interesting and not something horrible?”

The reach of Pictoline has crossed borders, mainly through its collaboration with The New York Times in Spanish, graphic pieces developed by Pictoline based on the U.S. publication’s own articles. Additionally, Pictoline and Unicef launched a series of stickers intended to help children in Syria.

Pictoline's pieces have become so popular in Latin America that for this 2017, they plan to launch Pictoline in Portuguese to cover the Brazilian market. They do not rule out opening offices or collaborations with other countries in the region.

But the true internationalization of Pictoline has been thanks to the fact that its illustrations are shared, reproduced and sometimes even modified, across the world, many times without corresponding credit. However, plagiarism – one of the most common problems on the internet – is not something that worries the Pictoline team.

“Obviously it happens, but I think it’s a natural part of the internet and what makes the internet such a live ecosystem. That ability to ‘steal,’ remix, parody, grab an image and make it a meme… it makes the internet a very living organism. Concepts like plagiarism seem totally obsolete in the current context. They are ethical values of the 20th century in the 21st century. First there is information and then there is the medium,” Salles said. “I do not care if people know that an image is from Pictoline. If they know, it’s great because it gives you a reputation, but I care more if the information gets there. If they stole it, modify it, it doesn’t matter. If the information is getting there, we’re fine.”

What is really a problem on the internet, says the co-founder of Pictoline, is the panic and disorientation in media caused by the speed with which technology has changed. This is something that, in Salles’ opinion, causes the media to adopt new tools and formats without in-depth analysis as to whether that’s what the audience really needs.

“I think there’s a kind of panic. The media try to emulate all the formats that are coming out, like a few years ago, when all the media were ‘buzzfeedizing’ themselves, when there was a boom of lists, everyone did it. They are confusing a format with the thinking that originated that format,” he said.

According to Salles, in order to really get on the train of innovation, media must take a step back and analyze what is happening, how their audiences are consuming the information, what their vision of the world is, what they need, and from there, designing something that can meet those needs.

“Innovation has to do with understanding what the current problem is and analyzing how to solve it. Most media are not asking themselves what the problem is, but simply copying what is successful, whether it's short videos with text, infographics [...] They go up one wave, then another, but without understanding it,” he said.

(*) This story is part of a special project by the Knight Center that is made possible thanks to generous support from Open Society Foundations. The "Innovative Journalism" series covers digital news media trends and best practices in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Other stories in the series include:

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.