Information Design Watch

November 25, 2008, 12:01 pm

MIT Media Lab Announces Center for Future Storytelling

By Lisa Agustin

The traditional approach to storytelling is at risk, thanks to an attention-deficient lifestyle, and the technologies that feed into it, like text messaging and YouTube.  Now the MIT Media Lab has teamed up with Plymouth Rock Studios, a Massachusetts-based movie studio, to create the Center for Future Storytelling as a way to keep the storytelling process alive by revolutionizing it.  According to the MIT press release:

By applying leading-edge technologies to make stories more interactive, improvisational and social, researchers will seek to transform audiences into active participants in the storytelling process, bridging the real and virtual worlds, and allowing everyone to make their own unique stories with user-generated content on the Web. Center research will also focus on ways to revolutionize imaging and display technologies, including developing next-generation cameras and programmable studios, making movie production more versatile and economic.

The Center is expected to leverage technologies pioneered at the Media Lab, like digital systems that understand people at an emotional level, or cameras capable of capturing the intent of the storyteller.  While the movie-making world is expected to benefit directly from the Center’s research, it will be interesting to see how results might innovate the business world and the approaches companies use to tell their own unique stories.

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Current Events, Technology

November 20, 2008, 12:55 pm

Ugly is Timeless

By Henry Woodbury

Jason Fried at 37 Signals offers an appreciation of the Drudge Report:

A couple weeks ago on Twitter I said: “I still maintain the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the web. Has been for years. A few people agreed, but most didn’t. Some thought it was a joke. I wasn’t kidding.”

Fried starts with the site’s “staying power:”

Its generic list of links, black and white monospaced font, and ALL CAPS headlines have survived every trend, every fad, every movement, every era, every design do or don’t. It doesn’t look old and it doesn’t look new — it looks Drudge.

Fried touches on design, branding, production, and content. What is the content of Drudge? Headlines and links. Why is that enough?

The more often you hit his site to go somewhere else the more often you’ll return to go somewhere else again. You visit the Drudge Report more because you leave the Drudge Report more.

Lots of food for thought.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Marketing, User Experience, Web Interface Design

November 20, 2008, 11:34 am

Worldwide recession? Time to make a zombie movie.

By Lisa Agustin

Social unrest and zombie movie production chart

From science fiction site io9: a chart that correlates periods of war and social unrest with the production of zombie movies.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs

November 19, 2008, 11:32 am

Up in Smoke

By Lisa Agustin

Up in Smoke Interactive Visualization

GOOD magazine offers an interactive visualization illustrating where people in the U.S. are still smoking — an interesting question, given recent smoking bans in eating and drinking establishments.  Roll over a state to see which bans are in place (none, workplace, restaurant, bar), what percentage of the state’s population smokes, and the price for a pack of cigarettes.  The state’s national ranking with regard to number of smokers and pack price are also presented. Overall, it’s a good approach: users can focus on single states, and also get a nationwide picture of bans and smoking populations.  But I found the use of visual metaphors — a cigarette for smoker percentage and a pack of cigarettes for the pack’s price–to be distracting.  (I originally mistook the cigarette as a bar graph measuring two different variables.)  For example, it’s unclear if a cigarette that extends the full width of the column equals 100%, and what the tallest pack of cigarettes cost (my guess was $7.00).  A better approach would be to eliminate the symbols, and place the percentage and cost closer together so the user can review them as a pair, with national figures placed closer to each for comparison.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Information Design, Visual Explanation

November 12, 2008, 2:00 pm

Crisis Metaphors

By Henry Woodbury

To explain the baffling complexity of the current U.S. and global financial crisis, Marketplace Senior Editor Paddy Hirsch has become a man of metaphors.

Here, he explains CDOs (Collaterized Debt Obligations) as a champagne fountain.

Other videos in this series include The credit crisis as Antarctic expedition, and Margin calls and the financial markets decline with girl scout cookies and barbie dolls as collateral.

Also recommended is Michael Lewis’s old-fashioned personality-based history of the CDO crash. As Hirsch demystifies the transactions that fueled the crisis, Michael Lewis tracks down those responsible. His article is simply titled “The End.”

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Comments (1) | Filed under: Business, Current Events, Visual Explanation

November 7, 2008, 3:44 pm

Best Business Books of 2008 #5: The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures

By Henry Woodbury

The list is by Jon Foro, a books editor at Amazon.com.

The book is by Dan Roam.

Anyone read it?

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Current Events, Visual Explanation

November 3, 2008, 3:48 pm

Microsoft Chart Advisor — Consider the Source

By Mac McBurney

The prototype Chart Advisor for Excel 2007 from Office Labs sounds like a step in the right direction:

This add-in uses an advanced rules engine to scan your data and, based on predefined rules, displays charts according to score. Top scoring charts are available for you to preview, tweak, and insert into your Excel worksheet.

An early post by Program Manager Scott Ruble describes the Excel team’s motivations, which at first glance seem admirable. On second thought, Ruble’s understated description of the group’s noble “intent” and responsiveness to strong feedback reminded me not to get my hopes up. (Emphasis and sarcastic comments added by me):

When Office 2007 was released [and not before then?], one of the strong pieces of feedback was Excel needs to do a better job guiding users in the proper selection of charts to effectively communicate their data. Though it wasn’t our intent [I feel so much better now], some of the new [and the old] formatting options [and defaults] such as glow and legacy 3D charts can [only] be used inappropriately, which obscure[sic] the meaning of a chart. Some people [silly, silly people] felt that these features contributed to creating more “chart junk.” In an effort to improve this situation, we have created a prototype called the Chart Advisor.

Mr. Ruble is being too modest. The new features and default settings — like the old features and default settings — guarantee more chart junk. This team wasn’t born on the day Office 2007 was released — quite the opposite. Saying that inappropriate use and obscuring the meaning of a chart was not the team’s intent seems, frankly, laughable.

I expect an upgrade from Microsoft to include new features — new things that users could do. Giving good advice about what a user should do is more difficult and risky, and it would ultimately be much more valuable. This is ambitious, and let’s hope it signals a greater focus on improving the real-world capabilities of Excel users, not just increasing the capabilities of the Excel software.

So far, Chart Advisor is in no danger of becoming an artificial Edward Tufte inside Excel. The add-in still serves a side order of chartjunk with your data.

Tim Mays reported that Chart Advisor ignored a whole column of source data and then (not surprisingly) recommended the wrong chart type. At first, Excel guru Jon Peltier didn’t even get that far.

Hey, that “advanced rules engine” is just a prototype. (More on the rules engine). If the wizards at Microsoft succeed in upgrading Excel’s brain, here’s hoping they have the courage to give it a heart and good taste as well.

Chart Advisor intro video

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Comments (2) | Filed under: Charts and Graphs, Information Design, Technology