Big Data and Design Thinking

Storytelling in a Quantitative age

This past friday, I witnessed the frontier of pure imagination driven by dynamic data. I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a Hyperackt lunch talk with Justin Manor, one of the founding members of Sosolimited. During the span of his one hour talk, not only was my mind was completely blown, I was left in awe of what great minds can create together. Originally a team of MIT grads from cross-disciplinary backgrounds, Sosolimited operates at the crux of art, design, and information.

Before the talk, I knew of Sosolimited from their Twitter fueled Empire State Building light show for SuperBowl 2014 (#WhosGonnaWin Super Bowl XLVIII).

The first ever social media driven light installation on the Empire State Building, fans got to control what was being produced through an algorithm, tracking Twitter responses to game predictions. #WhosGonnaWin approximated 450,000 Twitter responses during the week leading up to SuperBowl XLVIII, putting Verizon, as the sponsor, at 20% of the social dialogue surrounding SuperBowl. Clearly this demonstrated the power of harnessed social media data. During the talk, we learned this immersive experience gained far more exposure in both social media and press than any celebrity half time ad that year.

As our ability to harness and synthesize data continues to mature, so too will our ability to create new and more engaged experiences. As designers, I believe we have finally crossed another threshold, where the opportunity to disrupt and fundamentally change the language of interactive design has been handed to us. We are only limited by our imagination to dream these new experiences. To use the words of a fellow UX designer, “we’ve entered exciting times”.

The issue of disruption is not new in design. Back in late 2011, I saw Milton Glaser speak at the New School. It’s a talk I will always remember as he turned to the audience and asked all of us to start thinking in ways that would make design exciting and new again. At 82, and with a monstrously prolific career behind him, he spoke about an era where design had the ability to really change behavior. It was a time before big brand agencies, and established corporate comms divisions. It was a time of invention and he was asking us to now carry that torch forward.

Hearing Justin Manor speak, I realized Sosolimited resides in that gray space between invention, disruption, and creating design language. He spoke about Soso’s humble beginnings as a band with audience generated backdrop graphics through a series of clickers dispersed with fans. Manor shrugged and said noone was really there for the music; everyone wanted to see what the visuals would do next. Bridging these early experiences to the breadth and sophistication of their studio work, he simply stated that doing something weird will eventually get you paid to be weird.

He then walked us through a handful of studio projects, discussing obstacles, successes, and design thinking behind each. I love these moments, where the audience really gets a sense of the blood, sweat, tears and sheer determination projects ultimately manifest in their teams. It was clear that Soso weaves an awful lot of joy into what they are producing.

Because design projects are always bound by constraints, I found Crisscross Signal Spire an interesting case study to hear in person.

Working with architect firm Höweler + Yoon, Crisscross Signal Spire is an installation of animated synthesized Twitter (#signalspire) and 311 data in real time. The structure itself is a 3 dimensional representation of Boston’s 24 neighboorhoods; the sculpture lights up at various data points along the “map” lines. In essence, it is an elegant physical representation of UI data visualization. (Not surprisingly, Manor mentioned the wealthiest Boston districts report the highest data volume, and therefore more light real estate.)

Being this is a project for the City of Boston, it was mentioned during the case study that budget played a constraint in this process. No stranger to working with non profits, I wanted to get a better sense of what that meant to a studio like Soso. When I asked, he didn’t get into too many details, just that, in terms of monetary value, a project like this is obviously not as lucrative as one backed by a corporate sponsor. It can be a tough call to work with government and non profit agencies, a lot of heart has to be in place from the onset to make it worthwhile.

One last thought. As a lover of typography and politics, I can’t help but link to Between the deadlines of my life at the time, this had flown under my radar. It’s interesting that one can track the candidates emotive word choice along the lines of positivity, repetition, negativity, rage, etc. A stark reminder that words have measurable weight. An even starker reminder that words can hang around a bit in the digital ether.

Many thanks to Hyperackt and Sosolimited for this inspiring talk.