When I asked Tim Leong why he wrote the book Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe, his response was nerd-perfect: “Why would you not want to build infographics about comic books?!” A lifelong comic and design enthusiast, Tim spent the better part of a year intensively researching, writing and designing the book (all while leading the digital design team at WIRED Magazine).
The result: a gorgeous collection of graphs, charts and diagrams that weaves together a staggering amount of data on the world of heroes and villians. I caught up with the super productive author to find out his favourite gadgets, playlists, timesavers and more.
Location: San Francisco, California
Current gig: Author of Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe, debuting this month from Chronicle Books
Current mobile devices: iPhone 4S, iPad
Current computers: A 2010 iMac and a 2007 MacBook Pro
One word that best describes how you work: Constantly
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
Google Docs keeps me organised — the search function alone saves my terrible memory. Excel, because it lets me preview charts better than Google Docs does. I designed every page of Super Graphic, save for one, in InDesign. My day-to-day design needs also require Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Those are the holy trinity, as far as I’m concerned.
Spotify keeps my ears sane. Gmail — is it a cop out to say gmail? I don’t care. Gmail. I’d often be out and about and have a story idea or a chart idea and would email myself with “idea” and “infographic” in the subject line. Filters for days. The Bleacher Report Team Stream app is part of my daily routine. I read that every morning on the bus to check up on my St Louis teams. WeTransfer to send big files. While I was working on Super Graphic I had a little notepad that I used to sketch out some charts and do manual data collection. Designing digitally is great, but it’s still helpful to sketch things out first on paper.
What’s your workspace like?
For the book and various design projects I work at home. I can’t get into the idea of using a stand-up desk, so I’m planted in a chair. I use an Apple magic mouse, but I hate it — I keep accidently using the swipe commands (but if I turn them off what’s the point of the mouse?). I also use an apple wireless keyboard but really don’t like that either — the wireless one is too small for my hands. This is really making rethink my setup.
Pictured above: Tim’s workspace.
When I was working on Super Graphic, it was tough since I worked full-time as the Director of Digital Design at WIRED Magazine. I would come home every night and research and design a chart, so I had to be super focused and inspired, which can be tough after a 10-hour-day or more. So I covered the walls by my desk (read: my bedroom) with different charts, infographics and data visualisations. It just helped me get infographics on the brain. It was a technique I started when I launched a comic book magazine (Comic Foundry) back in 2005 — I had art and different story treatments all over my walls. Once it surrounds you and seeps into your brain, it’s a lot easier to hit that creative sweet spot.
What’s your best life hack?
It’s not so much a hack as it is a timesaver. To cut down on time used for brainstorming I’ll take a shower. If I get in the shower intent on solving a problem, nine times out of 10 I’ll come out of the shower with the answer. Because there are no distractions in the shower I have this intense focus that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Also a great way to trash the environment.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
I like to keep it old school and use the pen and paper. Every morning I put a sticky note down on my desk and write out all the things I need to do for the day and add to them as the day progresses. The first few are typically softballs that I can easily cross off so I can feel good about myself for a short second before I see the rest of the list. The downside of this model, aside from sometimes not being able to read my own handwriting, is that the sticky notes really mess up the finish of the desk.
Speaking of lists, when I brainstorm, I like to make lists of 10. If I’m trying to come up with a good idea for a photo, for instance, the second idea I come up with might be gold. It’s so easy to stop there, but I like to push myself to churn out a full 10. They might all be crap, but chances are there will be a few other good ones in the mix, and some that are better than my first great one. But if I stopped at the first good one I never would’ve gotten there.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?
This is not a very productive answer, but my Xbox. You can’t work all the time, you have to play too. I like playing sports games because no matter what sport, it’s a fixed amount of time. I’ll play one football game, and that’s it. I love playing non-sports games too, but it’s too much of a trap when I’m on deadline. Same goes with TV shows — watch one and get back to it.
What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
I can cook a pretty great five-minute steak. It’s order-me-on-death-row-for-your-last-meal tasty. All about the broiler, baby.
Despite my efforts to work late, I can also fall asleep pretty much instantly. Mid-sentence even. Which, has gotten me into trouble, including the time I fell asleep standing up on the subway.
What do you listen to while you work?
When I design I’m always on my Spotify starred list. Depending on the type of story I’m designing I’ll adjust my music — crazier design stuff will go louder and get my toes a tapping. More classical design will go more quietly. When I was the Design Director at Complex Magazine and would design a lot of stories about rappers, I would listen solely to their music when working to try and help set the mood. When I’m reading or writing I change it up to something more mellow without words, like the soundtrack to Super Mario Galaxy.
Pictured above: A wall inspirations.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading a bunch of monthly comics like Hawkeye (Matt Fraction and David Aja) and Saga (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples). I’m also reading Red Handed by Matt Kindt, and Batman Animated by Paul Dini and Chip Kidd. I’m usually in the middle of several titles — I’m a bit too ADD to stick to one.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m more of an introvert. I’m more than happy to stay in and work or just stay in. This was actually crucial to me finishing Super Graphic on time. As soon as I got my deadlines, Sunday became a permanent work day for me at home. I just took it off the social calendar completely and didn’t even think about it. Didn’t mind it either.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I am definitely a night owl. Since being in San Francisco, however, I find it harder to stay up as late as I did when I was in New York. I think it’s just an overall energy of the city. In 2005, when I launched Comic Foundry as a side project, web publishing was not as easy as it is now. It took me hours to edit and update the site for new issues. I was tired all the time so I tried to retrain my body for less sleep. Every day for at least a month, I stayed up to 3am, even if I didn’t have work to do. Sleep feels great, but I try not to get too accustomed to it.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My high school journalism teacher, H.L. Hall, who put me on this path of journalism and design, had several sayings that have stuck with me over the years and I’ve tried to embody. The first isn’t advice but more of a mantra: “I’m alive, awake, alert and enthusiastic!” The second is: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” which is the damn truth.
Is there anything else you want to add?
This is something I learned while watching Twin Peaks that I’ve converted a bit: No matter how late you work, no matter how tired you are, do something for yourself when you get home. Watch an episode of a show, play a round of a video game, read a chapter — just do something for yourself that isn’t work. Working late can mess with your mind and you can’t let it feel like you’re in a grind — even the best jobs can get tough in that sense. Treat yourself.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.