From Elephant Trunk to Origami: How I Get Inspirations for Data Visualization Projects

This piece visualizes the length of my TTC journey every morning to work in January 2018.

Commuting to work on public transportation is often very frustrating. It’s unpredictable, I am not in control, and it’s stressful when I could end up being late for work. I can say with certainty that people generally don’t find commuting enjoyable. I remember being amazed at the variance I observed in time it took for me to arrive to work. There were times when I arrived relatively on time, and other times where it was really off the mark. I spend a large part of my day commuting, and I started to wonder how I could express my frustration, in a relatively healthy way. I decided to record the time it took for me to take the subway from the station near where I live to where I work. This article will delve into more of my process rather than the insights and stories that came out of my data. I want to focus on process because I spent a very long time developing and honing my ideas for this project, there were many failures and bumps along the way. I think this is worthwhile to share because a lot of work out there in the world shows the perfect outcome but not the messy process of iteration. I think people should be exposed to the behind the scenes more because they gain an understanding of what the creative process is like and how being really confused is the apex of creating something novel and exciting. If you want to read more about the story with the data, check it out here.

Legend for the Visualization

Each individual box represents 5 mins of time. A string of these represents the amount of time per day it takes for me to commute in the TTC subway. Each string is labelled with the date. The first one on the left represents the time of my commute on January 3, 2018. There are 5 boxes, therefore my commute was 25 minutes long. Each string represents one day and uses colour to encode how it compares to the average. Anything yellow is when the commute time was equal to the average, which is 25 minutes. Anything green is when time is below the average, and blue is above average. Just less than half of the days I commute was over the average. There was one day when the TTC got out of hand. On January 30, Line 1 subway was in total chaos. My commute was 75 minutes long! The platforms were crowded with people risking the chance of someone falling onto the tracks. I was on the train heading south to Union and we got kicked off at St. Clair West station. I had to wait for 3 trains to pass by before I could board it. It was quite a sight as to how bad things really got.

Inspiration

The data collection process was quite easy for this. I would use a notes app on my phone and record when I arrived at the station. Then once I got to my destination, I would record the time of arrival. I only collected data for all the days I worked in January 2018. The part that comes after is just putting the data onto an excel sheet and cleaning it up so it was easy to read. The next part after this is where it gets really, really, tough. I struggle with form, a lot. In my last article, I talked about letting creativity run wild. This is something I decided to promise myself to do in my own projects. At work, I am restricted by client’s needs and there are bounds I cannot step out of. But when I work on my own personal work, the very least I can do is to allow myself to be as irrational in choices and creation as possible. I say irrational in the sense that is not trying to solve any problems, it’s not trying to meet some criteria, it is creation in its simple form. To create for the sake of it. But that is easier said than done. It’s hard to execute on this. It’s not easy to just be yourself and be as freely creative as you want. There’s always a voice in my head asking “what is the point of this?” or “so what?”. This is a hard question to answer. But I would simply say, the point is means of living. It is my way of life. As someone who breathes, practices tai chi, cooks something special, creates a wooden chair, or sings…It is simply a way of living.

Faced with the daunting task to create something that I want others to enjoy while being satisfied with my own effort and work, I was stuck. Before starting this project, I knew I wanted to do something with paper, specifically origami. I just didn’t know what type of origami. With the need for ideas, I decided to try something that worked in my previous project. I logged onto the National Geographic website and looked at the gallery of photos they had for that day. I looked up to 5 photos for inspiration. I looked for shapes, angles, and colours.

The first 5 photos I came across to get inspiration on National Geographic. the ones that impacted me were: the elephant and the man climbing the side of the icy mountain.

The first photo I saw was an elephant. It’s not something I have not seen before, but with the eye looking for inspiration, I looked at it differently. I started to notice the trunk. It had a consistent rhythm that I liked a lot. I liked how the shape of it was cascading and linked. The next photo I saw was of someone climbing an icy cliff. What caught my attention here was the angle the photo was taken. I really liked the angle of the photo. So I decided to incorporate that into my photos and take the shots at an angle from above. This created an interesting perspective and allowed the viewer to see dimensions. I immediately had the idea to combine this with the ridges in the elephant’s trunk.

I started prototyping some ideas out. I used paper, thread, and tape. I spent the next couple of days sewing things together to create the ridges of the elephant’s trunk. But it didn’t go anywhere. I then loaded up Pinterest. I knew the general shape by now would be something that I could build that could be manually linked together. I thought about shapes or animals that would look like that. The first that came to mind was origami snake. And voila, I found a tutorial on YouTube and spent the next couple of days learning the folds. I made a couple of prototypes and decided that this would be the shape my data would take in.

The next part was spending the time to build this. Each unit took approximately 5 minutes to make. The number of folds I had to make to create this was costly in time.

Trial and Error

It took me about a month to build the whole piece. I spent time on weekends and after work to fold as many of these as I could. The fun part was just about to start after I finished folding. I spent over a week figuring out how to best capture the origami. I wanted to suspend it to take just the right shot. I initially used laundry rack that balanced off of my chair to lower the pieces. I then came up with the crazy idea to stick the pieces to chopsticks with thumbtacks against the wall. This was a lot easier to work with and occupied less space.

Creativity is right when it doesn’t make sense.

No clients to rationalize to, no questions that I am obligated to answer. I am just living and creating.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you read, please follow my instagram (janezhgw) as that is where I update my work first. Feedback and questions are always welcome!

Data Visualization Designer. I provide a new perspective on how to see and understand the world. janezhang.ca

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