April 4th, 2015

David Stairs

There are two or three things graphic designers are especially keen about. They like to make logos: Researching, executing, and branding a marque will cause most self-respecting designer’s hearts to flutter. They like to talk about type: Obsessing about letterform and the way it looks on the page and interacts with images is second nature to them. And they like to illustrate data: In fact, they have an almost childish glee for finding ways to interpret statistics in a playful manner. But designers are not the only ones who represent data, and because it is not their exclusive domain they need to better understand why this is so.

A Punnett square, demonstrating heritability of dominant and recessive characteristics after Mendel.

Scientists also represent data visually. In fact, efforts to visualize their findings are so fundamental to the practice of science that scientists have developed an uncanny knack for it. This ability is not necessarily grounded in artistic training, and can result in something very basic, like Punnett’s square used to depict Mendelian genetics. But, although they ordinarily do not have training in visual art or design, scientists often invent new and innovative ways of visualizing; think of Sturtevant’s representation of genetic markers on chromosomes. This process is often a combination of what the data itself suggests enhanced by incremental improvements added by members of the scientific community. A graphic that follows the inherent logic of the substance represented is more likely to be universally accepted. This endeavor, the communal undertaking of a universally agreed upon meme or method, guarantees that visual ideas will be taken and improved upon, so long as they are effective.


Map of Sturtevant’s Chromosome 1 with the location of five of its approximately 4000 genes represented.

This is where much data-driven work by designers dramatically differs from that of scientists. There is an inherent difference in the words the two disciplines use. Designers call their visualized data info-graphics, or graphics that inform. For scientists, the proper term is informatics, meaning the collection, retrieval, and analysis of information. They sound similar, but there’s a subtle difference. Informatics is based on hard data; infographics, often rhetorical, treats visual data as a metaphor. And there’s one other difference: although infographics is in common parlance among designers, it does not appear in the dictionary. In other words, it’s informal, a colloquialism.


Cam Wilde by way of Google

The inherent need to entertain or persuade that is so common to most infographics makes them more relevant to a New Yorker cover than a PLoS conference paper presentation. Just as the world has adopted Milton Glaser’s I Heart NY creation, or Henry Beck’s London Underground map, applying them in a hundred variations, so too have designers colonized the style of hard science. Take Mendeleev’s table. First developed in the 1860’s, the vision of a means to order the physical elements according to their atomic weight was so far-seeing that it anticipated yet undiscovered elements. Today, the concept is so frequently copied that there is a Periodic Table for everything from candy to typefaces, until we reach the ultimate in self-reflection, a Periodic Table of Periodic Tables. The purpose of such non-scientific undertakings is sometimes humorous, other times persuasive. But in a world in need of as much accurate depiction of data as possible, a clear distinction between data representation and data free-interpretation needs to be emphasized.

Probably some of the finest examples of scientific visualization have derived from bioinformatics over the last century. Thanks to gene sequencing, and other techniques of molecular biology, scientists have had to develop a visual vocabulary for understanding life’s building blocks. Some, following Sturtevant, have created horizontally overlapping, nested representations of the known genes. Craig Venter’s genome, available as an 88MB PDF file of a 40″ by 60″ poster, has been called “the most complex informational graphic of all time.” As you can imagine, mapping all 25,000 genes comprising the 3 billion base pairs is an enormous task, and gaps remain. I provide only the minutest fragment of the Venter Map here.

Detail of Craig Venter’s genome. Reproduced by permission, J. Craig Venter Institute, under a Creative Commons license from PLoS Biology.

Another approach scientists use is an alternate method for visualizing smaller genomes. By nesting concentric circles, Professor Eric Linton maps the much simpler genome of a cytoplastic organelle such as a chloroplast. Technically, one “reads” the outside of the circle, the hydroxyl DNA strand, one way clockwise and the inside, or phosphate strand, in the opposite direction. While such details may not be inspiring to a layman, they are minutely informative, telling an experienced viewer what he/she needs to know at a glance. Again, the difference between data-driven graphics that are meant to amuse and those that are in deadly earnest becomes crystal clear.

Courtesy Eric Linton, Central Michigan University

Most visual designers are familiar with Edwin Tufte’s The Visual Representation of Quantitative Information. It should be required reading for every design student. Tufte’s illustrations of historical graphics like Minard’s depiction of Napoleon’s Russian campaign in terms of casualties, or Maray’s train schedule graphically depicting morning and evening/local and express arrivals and departures are early examples of data representation. Citing visualization techniques from data maps to computer modeling, Tufte chooses to argue that successful data visualization is a matter of clarity and simplicity, and these words are the same ones universally used by instructors of design to critique their students’ work. Accuracy should be added to the list.

By contrast, third year graphic design infographics at Central Michigan University lean heavily in the direction of rhetoric. This might seem ironic coming from students who are usually not required to study persuasive methods. Rather, Graphic Design students learn compositional basics such as field/ground relationships, color theory, and visual hierarchy. Consequently, their data visualization works to be clear and informative, and this would please Tufte. But in keeping with the tenets of journalism and advertising, which is often the only baseline students have, the work also strives to be visually persuasive. Generally, students are forced to present an incomplete or superficial understanding of the data. With a more scientific approach to data representation among design instructors, students could learn to balance pleasing imagery with hard fact.


Courtesy Rachael Jerzowski

Perhaps designers and scientists will one day spend more time working together. After all, there is no inherent obstacle to making data visualization both entertaining and accurate. There has always been interest in scientific visualization among artists and designers. I think here of colorized NASA photography, or Roman Vishniac’s Building Blocks of Life, and Felice Frankel’s Envisioning Science. These examples are photographic, yet they point the way toward a future of science accurately represented by design.

Just as web designers can benefit from understanding the programming language that underpins their layouts, information designers can also benefit from interpreting data in a more rigorous, less fanciful manner. Scientists will go on, much as they have for the last 300 years, naming and categorizing the known universe, revealing to the best of their ability all that is hidden behind the veil of nature. Making their data visually compelling as well as accurate need not be a topic strictly for scientists, but can and should be taken up by future generations of scientifically literate visual designers.

A longer version of this essay appeared in DesignIssues Volume 28, Number 4 Autumn 2012 as The Visual Representation of the Human Genome.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project.

March 1st, 2015

Victor Margolin

Before I go any further, I must confess that I am a man d’un certain age. Therefore my responses to new technology are selective and generational. I still favor transactions with other human beings over those with machines. When I was a boy in the early 1950s, almost all transactions were between one human being and another. The one exception for me was the gumball machine at the candy store around the corner from my apartment building in Washington D.C. I didn’t mind the absence of a live vendor in order to make my purchase. In fact, it was something of a novelty to put a penny in the machine and get a large colored gumball in return.

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February 1st, 2015

David Stairs

I.

I once founded a town. It’s in the high desert about twenty miles outside of Bend, Oregon overlooking the magnificent Three Sisters Wilderness off in the distance to the west. I called the town Denial. At the time only two other people volunteered to live there, hence the sign. But many more would have qualified to be living in Denial.

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January 1st, 2015

David Stairs

Homo faber, humankind the maker, seems destined to design itself right out of a world.


MacGyver packin’

Unlike pharmacology, or agriculture, technology has a weak review process for testing its effects on the natural environment. We have user testing, of course, the way we discover what will make a product or service dangerous or addictive. And there are certainly safety regulations, but they often are 50 years out of date. Do you imagine Henry Ford thought much about crash-test dummies? Or John D. Rockefeller about climate change?

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November 30th, 2014

David Stairs

Ah, autumn.

A crispness is in the air. The delectable smell of woodsmoke, the warm sun burnishing a hundred shades of orange, the tang of fresh cider at the orchard, or a field full of pumpkins at sunset. Into this idyll clomp the Boys of Autumn toting the ultimate example of techno-idiocy: leaf blowers.


The Boys of Autumn

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October 31st, 2014

David Stairs

As a person who answers a lot of mail inquiring about socially responsible design internship options, a recent Skype conversation with some grad architecture students at Ball State University got me to dusting off some serious criticism of the “faux humanitarianism” of do-gooder design.

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September 23rd, 2014

David Stairs

I grew up in a subdivision of a crossroads-small town named Mattydale, N.Y. In the early 20th century the area had been comprised of dairy and vegetable farms that supplied the city of Syracuse. In the 1920s the farmers sold out, and from then through the 1950s suburbia sprouted where carrots and cabbages once had grown. The earlier developments were diverse, with homes of various ages occupying the same block. Across from my parent’s house, built in 1926, was a Cape Cod constructed in the ’50s, itself sitting on land that once was a chicken farm adjoining the farm house next door.

In my early college days I knew friends who had grown up in Levittown, N.Y. I didn’t think about it much at first, I mean, what’s in a name? Only later, when I came to know why Levittown existed did I begin to question its sanity. The late ’40’s were all about developing affordable living spaces for returning GIs and the families they would raise. John Entenza’s Case Study House project in California was one approach, small, select, specially designed. Levittown, the mass-produced racially discriminatory version, was another. Both projects were constructed upon a concrete slab using pre-fab materials, but there the similarities ended.


Rapid tear down of existing structure in early June…

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August 27th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I like to go to a café in the morning to read the paper before I start work. I also enjoy meeting friends and colleagues in cafes. For some time, the Starbucks in my Chicago neighborhood was my choice for reading the paper and a Caribou Coffee a few blocks north of my home was the place where I chose to meet colleagues and friends. The reason for the distinction is that the Starbucks is designated as a high volume take out store with minimal seating, while the Caribou Coffee, now closed and soon to reopen as Peet’s Coffee, had better seating options for meeting others.

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July 22nd, 2014

The following is excerpted from Jesse McClain’s 2014 Master’s thesis—Ed.

Jesse McClain

Figure 1: Images from top to bottom: Top two images – Anawalt strip mining site in Southern West Virginia. Bottom image: Town of Keystone, West Virginia, near the city of Welch, WV. Photos: Jesse McClain.

SITE CONTEXT AND DOCUMENTATION

Southern West Virginia and Western North Dakota were both visited as part of the research process. These sites were chosen due to their similar connections with the energy industry and also their polar opposites in terms of economic prosperity. Welch, West Virginia is a small town which used to be called “Little New York” in the early 1900s. It was the city at the hub of the world’s first “billion dollar coalfield” and provided many of the area’s residents with a healthy and even prosperous income. Now it is deteriorating as the powerful strip-mining companies replace humans with machines and blow the tops off nearby mountains. Long-time Welch resident, Hilda Mitros, details accounts of personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the coal companies. She talks about gas and water explosions in and near her home as the earth becomes unstable with directional drilling and diverted water flow. Floods and sinkholes are commonplace in an area which is sacrificed for it’s fossil fuels. Hilda also reports that the decline in the economic and environmental health of the region has been accompanied by an influx of drugs and political buy-offs. She offers stories of attempts by community members to stand against the development of a major dumping site for disposal of out of state waste. The community was initially able to rally and protest this intervention but eventually, leaders were swayed through high pressure negotiation and shadowy bribery tactics. Hilda used to run a kitchen and bar and she remembers when the times were good and people prospered in a healthy community. I asked her if anything good was occuring in Welch and she said, “no, there is nothing good happening here.” A place that was once full of vitality and optimism is struggling to see a future that holds a promise of anything other than more destruction and abuse.

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June 30th, 2014

David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

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June 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

If you are a white-collar worker making a decent salary, chances are that your paycheck will go directly to your bank so you can access it with a check or a withdrawal slip or draw on it with a credit card or mobile phone payment. There are banks that charge for such accounts, but only usually if the customer’s balance drops below a given amount. In many banks you will get the checking account free, while in some you will even earn a modicum of interest on it.

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May 10th, 2014

Daniel Drennan


“Believe in stone and survive.”

Framework

From the Declaration of the Palestinian People during the first intifada in 1987:

We will no longer be a subject people. If you order us to our camps, we will roam the countryside. Dig up our soil and bury us alive in it if you will. If you direct us to work in your factories, we will confine ourselves to our homes. Herd us into concentration camps if you will. If you instruct us to buy your produce and your products, we will grow and make our own.

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April 19th, 2014

David Stairs

At 10:02am on Saturday, February 23, 2014 I officially became old.


X-ray of surgical plate to correct a comminuted fracture of my right distal radius

As I left my house to take my dog Asali for a walk I noted that the front steps were blocked by snow. I’d been working hard throughout an unusually harsh winter to keep them clear, but a recent thaw— it had been 48°F the previous day— had caused snow to slide off the porch roof and pile on the steps.

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March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

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March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

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February 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

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January 17th, 2014

Vassiliki Giannopoulos
National Design Awards
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128

Dear Ms. Giannopoulos,

Regarding your December 23rd email notifying us that Designers Without Borders has been nominated for the 2014 National Design Awards, we have this response.

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January 1st, 2014

David Stairs

An admission of personal weakness is not always a bad way to start a new year. I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell you a secret: I’m an inveterate maker of lists.

I can’t shop for food without using a list. At night I lie in bed evaluating the past with a list of events. In the morning I often compose an informal list of the days’ forthcoming activities. So, at a time of year when many people are generating lists of resolutions, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the idea for this post presented itself in list form.

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