Information Design Watch

May 27, 2010, 2:15 pm

Historic New England Web Site Goes Live

By Kirsten Robinson

Historic New England’s redesigned web site is now live at www.historicnewengland.org. Historic New England is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and presenting New England’s history. They own and operate 36 historic house museums, provide educational programming for adults and children, collect and conserve historic objects and archives, help preservation organizations and homeowners protect and maintain historic sites, and publish books and magazines about history and preservation.

Some highlights of the new site:

  • Improved navigation and fresh visual design replaced a site that had grown organically over ten years.
  • Greatly expanded content on historic properties, preservation, and more: site updates are completely under the control of Historic New England staff for the first time, through an easy-to-use content management system (CMS) called Plone.
  • Online collections access: users can now browse and search Historic New England’s extensive collections of museum objects, archival materials, and books. Online exhibitions are also easier to create.

Users can search and browse the collections and archives

  • Interactive events calendar allows users to browse events by date and location and then click through to the online shop for registration.
  • Search engine provides quick access to site content and collection highlights from any page, and there are also specialized searches for collections and events.
  • Galleries and slide shows are available throughout the site to better present Historic New England’s great photography. Here’s one about the animals at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm.
  • Multimedia is also supported, as seen in the Berlin & Coos County oral history project.
  • Interactive map provides a visual overview of Historic New England’s 36 property locations.
Map to Historic New England's 36 properties

Interactive map to Historic New England's 36 properties

  • Integration with Historic New England’s online shop (developed by a third party) enables them to sell memberships, donations, event registrations, and merchandise. The shop integration will also enable single sign on between the site and the shop, allowing access to restricted content as well as member discounts on purchases.
  • News has categories and feeds to position news appropriately throughout the site, and allows user commenting.
  • Microsites enable visitors to rent properties for weddings and functions and to celebrate Historic New England’s centennial.
Home page for the Function Rentals microsite

Home page for the Function Rentals microsite

Dynamic Diagrams has been working with Historic New England since January 2009 to define web strategy, information architecture, user experience, and visual design for the site. We worked with our development partners to implement the site using the Plone CMS, to convert legacy content, and to integrate the site visually and functionally with Historic New England’s online shop. We collaborated with our partners and Historic New England’s collections team to define and develop the Collections Access portal. Finally, we and our partners trained Historic New England staff authors on Plone and writing for the web, so that they could develop new content for the site and maintain it going forward.

We are thrilled to see the site go live and congratulate Historic New England on a successful launch.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Dynamic Diagrams News, Information Architecture, User Experience, Web Interface Design

May 27, 2010, 11:15 am

We Promise to Use Our Powers Wisely

By Henry Woodbury

From the Harvard Business Review comes a cautionary tale of bias and visualization. Visual information can make people overly confident in predicting outcomes. In the study described in the article, viewers who watched a computer animation of driver error “were more likely to say they could see a serious accident coming than those who actually saw it occur and then were asked if they had seen it coming.”

The way human brains process the sight of movement appears to be one reason for this outcome. The visceral reading of trajectory events — such as an animation of moving cars — creates an anticipatory judgment that is highly persuasive to higher brain functions.

Also important is the fact that every visualization incorporates a point of view, one that is all the more convincing for its visual immediacy:

The information can be conveyed with certain emphases, shown from certain angles, slowed down, or enlarged. (In a sense, all this is true of text as well, but with subtler effects.) Animations can whitewash the guesswork and assumptions that go into interpreting reconstructions. By creating a picture of one possibility, they make others seem less likely, even if they’re not. (my emphasis)

In essence, this is what we do on purpose. Whether for marketing, analysis, or scientific reportage, we quite explicitly present the story of the strongest possibility (which may well be that there are multiple possibilities). We do it ethically; we rely upon validated data to tell a story and honor the integrity of that data as we work. The Harvard study cautions us not to let our visual tools — especially our analytical tools — persuade us too easily of what the real story is.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business, Cognitive Bias, Marketing, Technology, Visual Explanation

May 25, 2010, 2:58 pm

Simplifying The Story of Stuff

By Lisa Agustin

Seemingly simple stories often have complex beginnings.  Consider the well-known web film (and now book) The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard.  A longtime activist with an interest in waste and its impact on the environment, Leonard was attending a leadership training program when she was asked to give a presentation.  She was shocked to find that no one knew what she was talking about.  Attendees pointed out that her vocabulary needed simplification and that she was “starting the conversation 20 years down the road.”  What to do?  Simplify the story:

Humbled, Leonard tried new angles. They all failed. Finally, in frustration, she hung a huge sheet of paper on the wall and crudely drew a mountain, a truck, a factory, a store, and a dump. And then she told the story of stuff. “You ought to make a movie of that,” 30 different people said.  [Post-institute, Leonard] traveled the country with her sketch.  The rest is Internet history.

Instead of creating “a paradigm shift in relation to materials,”  Leonard started asking “Where does all the stuff we buy come from, and where does it go when we throw it out?”  By combining this straightforward approach with a simplified visual style (animated stick-figures), Leonard’s film engages and enlightens in a way that makes viewers easily see what the problem is and how they can make a difference.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Information Design, PowerPoint, Visual Explanation

May 25, 2010, 11:38 am

Saint Ginés Wins MUSE Award

By Henry Woodbury

Dynamic Diagrams and the J. Paul Getty Museum have won a  2010 Silver MUSE award for the Getty-produced video Making a Spanish Polychrome Sculpture. Dynamic Diagrams created the 3D animation that opens the video and shows how the XVII century sculpture was assembled. The Getty integrated this animation with live action footage that shows carving and surface treatment techniques. The effectiveness of this combination was noted by many of the judges:

This is a fine example of technology effectively used to clearly demonstrate an intricate artistic process. It’s the combination of the digital imagery with the live footage of an artist that makes this video exciting and fascinating for all kinds of audiences

The MUSE awards are presented annually by the American Association of Museums’ Media and Technology committee. They recognize “institutions or independent producers which use digital media to enhance the museum experience and engage new audiences.” We are proud to work with The Getty on projects of such scope and distinction.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Art, Current Events, Dynamic Diagrams News, Technology, Visual Explanation

May 25, 2010, 11:16 am

Creative Destruction

By Henry Woodbury

Wired runs a very interesting piece on Pixar and how it, among all Hollywood studios, manages to produce hit after hit. One factor in their success is the stability of their team. Another is their ability to shred through ideas:

Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. “It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.”

I really like this framework for the creative process. Creative ideas — in design as well as film making — build from iteration, from critical review and rework. The time to run through this process of creative destruction is the concept stage — “to screw up as fast as possible.” Once you move into production, rethinking costs much more time and money. The importance of concept development is something we always try to communicate to our clients.

But I would add that the ability to respond to criticism starts with the stability and talent of the team. General Creighton W. Abrams put it this way:

The only way to get anywhere with kicking ass is with an outfit that is already good.

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Comments (1) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Business, Creativity, Technology

May 19, 2010, 12:52 pm

Explore the Display Cabinet

By Henry Woodbury

Augsburg Display Cabinet at The Getty MuseumOne of the masterworks in The Getty Museum’s newly opened European sculpture and decorative arts galleries is the Augsburg Display Cabinet, a lavishly decorated 17th century cabinet that once would have stored a collector’s curios and precious objects.

The cabinet features many panels and doors beyond those opened for display. To give visitors a look inside the cabinet and help them understand the details of its decoration and construction, The Getty asked Dynamic Diagrams to create an interactive 3D model of the artifact.

Working closely with Getty curators and media professionals, we used a comprehensive set of photographs to build the model and apply surface details. We then coded our application to import text and zoomable images from an external source, allowing Getty staff full control over the descriptions and detail views that accompany the model.  

Our application is presented in the gallery on a touchscreen display, as seen at right in this photo from the Daily News of Los Angeles.

The Getty has also placed the application on its web site allowing you to explore the wonders of the Augsburg Cabinet on your own computer.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: 3D Modeling, Art, Current Events, Dynamic Diagrams News, Visual Explanation

May 11, 2010, 10:46 am

Using Twitter to Keep Up With H1N1

By Lisa Agustin

Whenever a new disease emerges, web sites for the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) become the go-to for the latest on epidemiology and the global implications of a given threat. But “informal surveillance sources” like Internet news sites and direct reports from individuals are becoming increasingly important for identifying early outbreaks of diseases, according to a report in the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.  Such is the case with HealthMap (shown above), an interactive disease-tracker created as part of the Journal’s H1N1 Influenza Center.  So far, the site has collected 87,000 reports (both formal and informal) to monitor the spread of the H1N1 virus.  The wealth of data collected through HealthMap enabled researchers to follow the pandemic’s spread both geographically and across a given timeframe, while enabling new areas of investigation.  For example, the report’s authors compared a country’s lag time between identifying suspected and confirmed cases with its 2007 national gross domestic product.  (A side note: Crowdsourcing for the greater good isn’t new; the Ushahidi platform was initially developed to map both formal and informal reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008, and has since been used to monitor federal elections in Mexico, the spread of H1N1, and relief activity in post-earthquake Haiti.)

There are both pros and cons to using informal sources.  In the case of emerging outbreaks, the advantages relate to the speed with which news reports are broadcast (unusual outbreaks receive intense coverage), and the ability of individual health professionals to pick up weak signals of disease transmission across borders.   However, the difficulty in confirming diagnosis “presents challenges for validation, filtering, and public health interpretation.”  Validating individual sources of information will become a bigger issue with the next version of HealthMap.  While the current version uses individual reports from “reliable” sources (e.g., International Society for Disease Surveillance), work is underway to draw from blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.   As the ability to post and share reports from the ground becomes easier, verification processes will need to be more rigorous without compromising the delivery of timely information.  The maps that solve this challenge will become indispensible.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Current Events, Maps, Technology

May 7, 2010, 9:02 am

Murderer or Mohel? With Kindle, It Depends

By Lisa Agustin

Steven Levy tells how his download of Stephen Hunter’s latest novel came with a typo on the title page. While fixing e-book typos seems like the right thing to do, don’t assume it will happen automatically, at least not with Amazon’s Kindle. The company learned its lesson with last summer’s secret deletion of George Orwell’s 1984.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Technology

May 4, 2010, 10:17 am

Jobs Takes Flash to the Mat

By Henry Woodbury

Get your ringside seats for the Apple vs. Adobe fight, right here.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs tries the headscissors takedown:

Besides the fact that Flash is closed and proprietary, has major technical drawbacks, and doesn’t support touch based devices, there is an even more important reason we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads… We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen bounces back with a half nelson leg sweep (video here):

The technology problems that Mr. Jobs mentions in his essay are “really a smokescreen,” Mr. Narayen says. He says more than 100 applications that used Adobe’s software were accepted in the App Store. “When you resort to licensing language” to restrict this sort of development, he says, it has “nothing to do with technology.”

Meanwhile, Adobe plans to demo Flash for Google’s Android OS this month — and give Android phones to all of its employees.

By the way, here’s Rey Mysterio performing the headscissors move:

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Sports, Technology, User Experience, Web Interface Design

May 3, 2010, 1:28 pm

Social Media: The Means to the Ends

By Henry Woodbury

I’m no Jeremiah, but this critique of Facebook’s approach to privacy is quite unsettling:

When you think about Facebook, the market has very specific incentives: Encourage people to be public, increase ad revenue.

The speaker is Microsoft’s Danah Boyd. She doesn’t get into horror stories. She just nails the paradigm.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business, Marketing, Technology, User Experience