Information Design Watch

June 30, 2006, 11:20 am

Visual Explanation Meets MTV

By Tim Roy

I was recently sent a link to a YouTube video that someone thought I would find amusing. It turned out to be a music video containing an amazing series of visualizations. While some might enjoy the techno backdrop of this Norwegian band (Roysksopp), it is equally fascinating to turn off the sound and see the various elements both as stand-alone visualizations and the manner in which they are connected.

The visualizations themselves range from process-flows, to pure explanation. I enjoyed seeing the use of a brief isometric projection model, which is the approach we favor here at d/D. It was also nice to see one of our favorite diagrams, Harry Beck’s Map of the London Underground.

And so, to see the video, please click here: Roysksopp — Remind Me.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Visual Explanation

June 29, 2006, 2:08 pm

Debunking Myths About the “Developing” World

By Lisa Agustin

For the first time, select presentations from the annual Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference are now available online, including a presentation by Hans Rosling from this year’s meeting. Rosling is a public health expert, director of Sweden’s world-renowned Karolinska Institute medical university, and founder of Gapminder, a non-profit that visualizes critical world development data. With the narrative style of a sportscaster, Rosling focuses on debunking myths about income and mortality in the “developing” world.

Key to his presentation are animated visualizations based on statistics from Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Created by Gapminder, these Flash-based animations rely on well-known visualization models, most notably the bubble map. This talk brings to mind two key issues with regard to information design and visualization: First, it underscores the importance of data visualization in representing complex statistical information (the viewer comes away with an understanding of the data more quickly than if it were simply presented in a written narrative). Second, it reminds us that representing complex information visually can only take you so far, and that providing an appropriate narrative may be a necessity, especially if the underlying message(s) are not that obvious.

Hans Rosling’s Presentation at TED 2006 is here: http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/tedtalksplayer.cfm?key=hans_rosling.

Gapminder’s animations are available at: http://www.gapminder.org/

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Visual Explanation

June 20, 2006, 1:05 pm

Designing On a (Really) Small Scale

By Lisa Agustin

Nanotechnology is science and engineering at the scale of atoms and molecules. Think about these futuristic-sounding scenarios, described by the New Scientist:

Imagine a world where microscopic medical implants patrol our arteries, diagnosing ailments and fighting disease; where military battle-suits deflect explosions; where computer chips are no bigger than specks of dust; and where clouds of miniature space probes transmit data from the atmospheres of Mars or Titan.

Now think about what would be involved in designing these materials and devices–objects that are so tiny that nothing can be built any smaller. The NS Technology blog recently posted a link to NanoEngineer 1, software that lets nanoengineers create moving blueprints for their nanoscale designs. The NanoEngineer site’s gallery of animations includes intricate gears and bearings, among them a first-time simulation of the Drexle-Merkle Differential Gear. (A much larger version of this kind of gear lets the wheels on a car rotate at different speeds as it goes around a corner.) While the static model did a good job of describing the gear’s internal assembly, the animation adds another level of understanding to how the various components work together.

For the New Scientist Technology blog: http://www.newscientist.com/blog/technology/2006/06/nanoengineers-toolbox.html

For more information on nanotechnology: http://www.newscientisttech.com/channel/tech/nanotechnology

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Technology, Visual Explanation

June 19, 2006, 4:30 pm

DesignBusinessArchitectural Thinking

By Mac McBurney

This recent Business Week article calls Patrick Whitney, director of the Institute of Design (ID) at IIT in Chicago, a design visionary.

Traditionally, design education is based on visual expression, and students learn through drawing, model making, and studying the work of other designers. That is still the case in most design schools. Little emphasis is placed on how design fits into a business context.

Whitney pioneered a completely different model. The ID curriculum focuses directly on design strategy and innovation. Some 80% of the school’s courses don’t involve making things. User Observation & Early Prototyping aims at understanding consumers’ wants, the crux of the innovation gap. In New Product Development, students also learn how to read a balance sheet. In Design Languages, they learn how to make effective business presentations. In Systems Design, students look at designing business organizations…

“Most designers don’t understand business,” says John Seely Brown, the former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. “Patrick has done more than anyone in crossing this chasm.”

ID graduates and faculty made a strong impression on me at ID’s Chicago neighbor Doblin (www.doblin.com). On ethnographic research and innovation projects, designers combined forces with (for example) anthopologists from the University of Chicago and MBAs from Kellogg. Now, in addition to educating innovation-savvy designers, ID now offers a dual Master’s degree with IIT’s business school. From ID’s web site:

The first program of its kind in the world, IIT’s MDes/MBA marks an important milestone in the co-evolution of design, management, and innovation. As design becomes regarded more and more as an essential business resource, professional education that links the two fields is becoming increasingly important.

Could a triple-Master’s degree, adding anthropology or social psychology, be next? Whether companies acquire these skill sets by forming interdisciplinary teams, or by hiring a single cross-trained individual, more companies seem to be waking up to the benefits.

Unfortunately, Business Week applies a caricature of business schools to over-hype an already important point.

Corporations have traditionally mined the best B-Schools for by-the-numbers managerial talent. But who really wants to hire people with masters degrees in “administration” when today’s business culture demands managers who can master the process of innovation.

Historically, b-schools may come by their stereotype honestly, but equating today’s top MBA programs with a 1950s-style “degree in ‘administration’” isn’t fair. More importantly, it’s unnecessary. Programs like the one at ID are newsworthy and valuable even by today’s standards.

For their part, many business schools are offering courses on innovation and contextual research methods along side the finance and economics. What ID would call design thinking, Toronto’s Rotman School of Management calls “integrative thinking.” This is more than another business buzzword: Rotman’s integrative thinking pages contain seminar notes, videotaped speeches by Malcolm Gladwell and Jack Welch, as well as a coherent, detailed explanation of the term. See also: ID’s collection of research and ideas.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Information Design

June 19, 2006, 1:01 pm

Who Are We Designing For, Anyway?

By Lisa Agustin

Consumers? Customers? Users? These are the words that we’ve grown accustomed to using when referring to the person who will benefit from the latest object or information we’ve designed. According to author Don Norman, these are derogatory terms that continue to look at the (pardon us) end user from the company-centered perspective. Says Norman, why not look at them for what they really are — People:

If we are designing for people, why not call them that: people, a person, or perhaps humans. But no, we distance ourselves from the people for whom we design by giving them descriptive and somewhat degrading names, such as customer, consumer, or user. Customer — you know, someone who pays the bills. Consumer — one who consumes. User, or even worse, end user — the person who pushes the buttons, clicks the mouse, and keeps getting confused.

The related terminology is no less impersonal, since these users–in their various “roles”–”perform tasks” to get “results” and hopefully avoid “errors” in the process. Norman’s suggestion to “wipe out words such as consumer, customer, and user from our vocabulary” may not be possible; rather, the takeaway for designers should be to strive for an understanding of and empathy for those who will hopefully benefit from well-designed information or products.

http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/words_matter_talk_ab.html

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Architecture, Information Design, User Experience

June 16, 2006, 2:29 pm

Design Does Not Get More Hands On Than This

By Henry Woodbury

Remember subliminal advertising? A Time.com article on “menu engineer” Gregg Rapp details the totally visible design tricks a restaurant will use to steer patrons to higher profit selections:

The way prices are listed is very important. “This is the No. 1 thing that most restaurants get wrong,” he explains. “If all the prices are aligned on the right, then I can look down the list and order the cheapest thing.” It’s better to have the digits and dollar signs discreetly tagged on at the end of each food description. That way, the customer’s appetite for honey-glazed pork will be whetted before he sees its cost.

One ongoing difficulty in the design business is quantifying return. This is not so for Rapp:

Rapp is so sure of his menu makeovers that he offers a money-back guarantee that his menu will raise profits–and in his 25 years in the business, he has yet to issue a refund.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Business, Information Design, Marketing

June 8, 2006, 1:25 pm

Bar Graphs at Em Height

By Henry Woodbury

In his forthcoming book, Beautiful Evidence (2006), Edward R. Tufte explores the idea of “sparklines,” simple graphs whose y-axis is scaled to the height of a line of text. A draft chapter of Beautiful Evidence provides many examples of the concept and is accompanied by additional comments from Tufte and others.

I came across sparklines on David Pinto’s Baseball Musings site, where he has recently experimented with text-height graphs for such data sets as strikeouts per game (Jason Schmidt) and hits per game (Joe Mauer vs. Alex Rios).

Pinto credits Joe Gregorio who created the Baseball Musings sparklines on his online image generator. Gregorio, in turn, links to Tufte.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Design, Sports, Visual Explanation

June 6, 2006, 9:44 am

What Does Google Run On?

By Henry Woodbury

According to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, Google runs on trust. Which makes him wonder about its prospects:

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if Google has peaked. The reason is that, for lots of different groups of people, Google’s reputation as good guys has been stained. And I’m not sure what Google really has to bank on, besides a good reputation.

Reynolds points out that users can easily switch from Google to a competitor like Ask just by typing a different URL. However the barriers to change are not as low as he suggests — baseline users will use Google until it fails as a service while the webheads that are paying attention to Google’s PR problems may also have a Gmail account or run Google Desktop. And until advertisers see a change in traffic, they have no incentive to switch to a lesser-known service.

On the last point, Reynolds does link to a Buzzmachine post that suggests that Google’s marketing approach is not extensible. This doesn’t mean the current “views and click-through” model is at any risk, however.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Technology