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Graphic Design in The Big Data Era: A Brief Survey and Analysis

Lulu Wang
Lulu Wang
Jun 19, 2018 · 7 min read

This is a brief survey of 5 iconic digital products/businesses/services in the big data area (2000-present). By taking a closer look at the items and the image and sound associated with them, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics of graphic design in the big data era.

Item 1

Item: Amazon
Image: Amazon logo
Sound: Alexa’s voice (Alexa is the persona of the voice controlled personal assistant Echo)

“Today, the agenda of business is being defined by these two forces: massively available information and new models of individual engagement.” [1] Creating customized experiences based on individual needs and preferences becomes a critical business strategy. Take Amazon as an example, they use personal data such as page browsing data on Amazon, search history, photo meta data to determine the customer’s behavior, habits, and preferences of a customer, in order send relevant ads to this customer.

The essence of graphic design is visual communication serving a purpose, usually a business purpose. In this case, the logo of Amazon uses a friendly looking san serif font, and an arrow that points from the letter A to the letter Z, to hint the online store covers everything from A to Z. The same arrow also resembles a smile of a satisfied customer of the business.

The new personal assistant Echo has a persona “Alexa”, who responds to customer’s voice and automatically orders products for the customer on Amazon. Alexa has an unique female voice that reminds people of a family maid who follows orders from the customer, which reinforced Amazon’s “demand-based” service business model and the brand image it is trying to maintain.

Item 2

Item: Mad Men TV show
Image: Mad Men title sequence screenshot
Sound: Mad Men title sequence music: A Beautiful Mine

In Big Data era, a single design project usually combines techniques from multiple creative industries, and created by multiple software each excels at one aspect of the final design.

A great example is the Mad Man TV show title sequence, which combines graphic design, film making and animation techniques and creates this Emmy Award-winning title sequence that inspired many graphic designers [2]. It takes an illustration of the man in black suit, his motion of going up an office building in an elevator is animated, and his figure is watched from multiple perspectives with different camera positions and angles. The graphics are probably created by Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop and animated in After Effects. “We would have seen ‘digital multimedia,’ i.e., designs that simply combine elements from different media. Instead, we see what I call ‘metamedia’ — the remixing of working methods and techniques of different media within a single project [3].

The short clip of RJD2’s orchestral “A Beautiful Mine” matches this short sequence perfectly. It becomes iconic and sets standards for what a good title sequence should look and sounds like.

Item 3

Item: TED
Image: TED stage
Sound: TED talks opening sequence music

Today, the outcome of graphic design lives in different forms and through different media. Graphic design requires a design system guideline, so the product looks and feels the same way whenever they are used online and in our physical world. Design system is important to keep the product’s brand consistent [4]. An example is that Airbnb’s logo is turned into keychains to reinforce the brand. TED has a design language in place so that all designs for the organization, from books to website to stage to conference badges, all have the same look and feel of the TED brand. One of the most iconic design is the TED stage, it always has a 3D version of the three letters, TED, behind the speaker, and red round carpet that lays beneath the speaker’s feet. The letters and the red round carpet are vocabulary of the design language, which can be found in other part of TED presence such as on its website and printed books.

Consistent and coherent brand presence calls for a design language or a design system to be developed for a design project in businesses. IBM, Google, Apple, Airbnb, Facebook, all have their own design languages to reinforce their brand.

TED talks opening sequence music has the sound of a drop of water that resonates with the iconic round carpet, which is genius in representing the brand in decibels.

Item 4

Item: Google Glass
Image: Google glass augmented reality proof of concept video screenshot
Sound: Google glass notification sound

Jessica Helfand talks about the need for more significant improvements of graphic design in the age of interactive technology. “This is one of the more irritating myths about the electronic age, yet one that perpetually seems to reinstate itself with each new technological advance. Space on the screen is just that: on the screen. Not in it. Not of it. Design tools are mere control mechanisms perpetuating the illusion that Internet space is made up of pages, of words, of flat screens.” [5] This was written in 2001 when interactions are just getting started to be embedded in computer applications. Jessica called for “new avant-garde” in graphic design to take into consideration of “displacement (of observers)”, “dematerialization (of what is being observed)” and “Demacration (of new boundaries)”.

Google glass project is a breakthrough in terms of introducing augmented reality and human-machine interactivity into daily life. The graphic design principles used in Google glass lenses to ensure good usability include: dimmed down colored to facilitate peripheral vision reading, placement of images on the upper left corner of the lenses, small but legible fonts, usage of transparency in user interface elements. However, the graphic design for Google glass project still stays at a two dimensional level similar to that in print. See the image below appeared in the Google glass promotional video, which is what the viewer can see while wearing Google glass. The UI elements are showing on the upper right side so as not to block the main view. Usage of transparency of the texts helps viewer see through those texts into the real world. Icons only have shapes but not colors, so as not to create visual noises.

Google glass notification sound is extremely subtle, crisp, and simple. Its design matches the graphic design consideration, which is making the UI peripheral and out of focus, however always available when needed. The sound is also modern and clean, which goes with Google glass overall aesthetics.

Item 5

Item: Google’s 3D real world map
Image: A 3D image of Statue of Liberty constructed by crowdsourced tourists’ photos from different angles.
Sound: Google map voices

In big data era, crowdsourcing public data to create new ways of creating graphics is an innovation in graphic design method. The new meaning created in the new image does not exist in individual images that are crowd sourced.

In an article published in Fast Company magazine [7], Google uses “…state-of-the-art computer vision techniques to organize and position all the photos in 3-D. Then the system groups, or clusters, the photos according to the similarity of the images and selects the best canonical views to include in the photo tour based on the data available…For example, if a lot of people take photos in front of a famous cathedral, then our algorithm will choose to show the best of those photos, taking into considering factors like resolution, photo popularity, etc. The algorithm knows the highlights of a place because users take a lot of photos of those highlights.” This is only possible with the amount of public data available online.

The imaging technique used in this project resonates with Ellen Lupton’s idea in “The ABC’s of Bauhaus, The Bauhaus and Design Theory” that using transparency and layering in graphic design can give graphics new meanings. “Transparency can be used to construct thematic relationships”. Compressing two pictures into a single space can suggest a conflict or synthesis of ideas (East/West, male/female, old/new)….Transparency and layering have always been at play in the graphic arts. In today’s context, what makes them new again is their omnipresent accessibility through software…Their language has become universal.” [6]

The Google map machine generated voices sound authoritative. It is intentionally designed so in order to embody the personality of accuracy and credibility. Again, sound as a way to complement graphic design to serve the brand of a product.


Graphic design as a profession in the big data era is closely related to business; it has become an important business strategy for many big corporations. Graphic design workflow has became more complex in the big data era in terms of the number of software and types of professionals working together in a single design project. Design languages or systems are developed to keep brands look and feel consistent in all channels and throughout user journey of the product or service. Interactive technology opened up new improvement possibility, such as graphic design for augmented reality. New basics of graphic design including the usage of transparency and layering give rise to new meanings to graphics, and in the big data era these techniques are frequently and widely used.


1. Papas, P. How Big Data Is Revolutionizing Design. Available online: https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/11/how-big-data-is-revolutionizing-design/ (accessed on 18 June 2018).

2. Mad Men — Main Title. Available online: https://www.imaginaryforces.com/work/mad-men-main-title (accessed on 18 June 2018).

3. Manovich, L. Import / Export, Or Design Workflow and Contemporary Aesthetics. In Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field; Princeton Architectural Press: New York, NY, USA.

4. Kholmatova, A. Design Systems: A practical guide to creating design languages for digital products; Smashing Magazine: Basel, Switzerland.

5. Helfand, J. Dematerialization of Screen Space. In Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field; Princeton Architectural Press: New York, NY, USA.

6. Lupton, E. The ABC’s of Bauhaus, The Bauhaus and Design Theory; Princeton Architectural Press: New York, NY, USA.

7. Wilson, M. Google’s Photo Tours Suggest A Crowdsourced, 3-D World Map. Available online: https://www.fastcodesign.com/1669688/googles-photo-tours-suggest-a-crowdsourced-3-d-world-map (accessed on 18 June 2018).

Lulu Wang
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