Mapping Inspiration: A Q&A with Latoya Peterson

How Peterson works with Fusion’s interactive team to make beautiful things happen

Every box tells a story, in Latoya Peterson’s Mental Map.

Latoya Peterson creates all kinds of groundbreaking digital work with Fusion (including an incredible documentary series, Girl Gamers, which just launched). We spoke with Peterson about her Mental Map project, an interactive series that traces and celebrates creative roots. The first, released this spring, featured artist and illustrator Carl Jones. The next one, with Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, launched today. - Eds.

Q. Where did the initial idea come from, for the Mental Map?

It started a few years back, when I used to do stringer work for a major tabloid. Stringer work means you have no byline; you report back to your editor with a summary of what happened. Very, very easy. I would talk to these celebrities, particularly ones who came to D.C., who were there to support a cause or who had something to promote, or who were doing something with the State Department. …Some celebs were very very smart, like Gabrielle Union. But all the tabloids really want to know about is the makeup, the bag they are carrying. I remember having a long conversation with her at the State Department about foster care and communities in need and feeling dismayed that almost none of that would make it into the magazine. Instead, I always wanted to figure out, “How can we talk about issues that matter?” Not just who they’re dating or who they’re wearing.

It also came about because I am very curious about the lives of creators. I’d love to have a time machine and ask Frida Kahlo about one of her untitled pieces–depending on the curator it’s either called The Abortion or The Miscarriage. But we can’t go back and ask Frida Kahlo why she made that print. The Mental Map is about trying to understand why [an artist] created a certain kind of work.

Screenshot from Mental Map

Tracing the early influences of Carl Jones’ work.

Q. How does the format create a different kind of storytelling?

Mental Map is a very different kind of interview. Most people are down with talking about their work, but it’s hard getting them to piece out how they got there —I ask, ok, did you have a favorite high school teacher, a favorite book? The feature lives and dies on that… The person I interviewed for the new one, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, he’s an internet guy. Carl Jones gave me something like ten cartoons, seven movies, eight books, three comedy albums. With Alexis it’s a lot tighter. And Ai Jen Poo, who is a future profile, had major themes of dignity and jazz. And so with each person’s story, it’s a challenge to tell it visually as a way people can just follow along.

Q. Who would you especially love to have in the series?

Erykah Badu, Questlove, Janelle Monae… a lot of great hip-hop artists are so passionate about music in general. I love listening to DJ Jazzy Jeff. He does the Mixtape series. It’s an eclectic mash of amazing, amazing influences. It’s all over the map. You have no idea where Jazzy Jeff is going. He might mix the Beach Boys with Ice-T. He’ll do new hip-hop, classic rock, fun in the sun. Great artists have explored so much, done so much, looked at so much and can make something that’s totally new, an homage but not a rip off. Jane Rodriguez. Tristan Walker. Nalo Hopkinson. Junot Diaz. Anyone interesting, really.

My ideal fantasy is to interview Beyonce one week and an astrophysicist the next week. To put everyone on the same kind of footing.

Q. Can you describe the process on the back end? Was there a creative team and a tech team? How did you negotiate the path to getting this done?

I have a lot of very big ideas that I don’t have the tech background to implement. Luckily for me, at Fusion we have a dream-level art and interactive team. They are just bananas. I have never worked anywhere where I tell someone an idea and instead of hearing, “We don’t really do that” or, “That’s a lot of work,” we hear, “Yeah, of course, we can do that.” And it’s better than I could have imagined. Adrian Saravia, Miguel Costa, and the whole team keep the standard for art really high, and they take everything really, really seriously. I sent them essentially a Keynote file with the script and the elements I wanted them to highlight. (All of my UX skill is basically me mocking things up in Keynote.) I also tend to do a lot of inspiration boards and mood boards for color and feel. I looked at things I thought were cool and things I wanted to string together.

Then I sent a 10 or 12 page document to Adrian and they try to piece together what I am looking for - only, through their own artistic lens which normally turns out more beautiful than I see in my head.

The first one is always the hardest, for things like this, because you are building a framework for the next one. You have to choose what goes in, how it will be presented. “Which way should this pop out? How will this look on mobile?” Early on, they sent me a prototype and then we realized it wasn’t going to work on mobile. It took multiple rounds of revisions to get the flow right on desktop and mobile.

They came up with the final concept that they customized for Jones, with no detail left unattended. It was stunning to me when I saw it. And then you have to go back and forth with the code, and then tweaking text can mean throwing [the design] off. It took two months longer than what we thought, but I didn’t care, it was amazing.

Screenshot from Mental Map

The newest Mental Map captures the influences of Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian.

Q. What’s your vision for doing more features like this, in the future?

I’m hoping that the format will be interesting enough so that readers will come for that one person but stay because the format is so intriguing. I have a list of 150 people I want to interview. We will probably only build 12 or so this year, because it take a lot of plotting and building, but they’re really worth it.

The benefit of being at Fusion right now is that it’s a world-class team, a world-class art department. Everyone is united in a desire to change the media landscape, whether it’s culture coverage or sex or politics… Anna Holmes is awesome… It’s really crazy in that startup way, but the default is “yes, here’s how” as opposed to “no and here’s why.” There are bumps in the road, as there are everywhere, but it’s fun to be able to create without sticking to certain types of formulas.

See the newest in the Mental Map series, with Alexis Ohanian of Reddit.





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