Monday, July 23, 2012

Gregor Aisch and Jan Willem Tulp: The rise of European visualization

Visualization of tax-free sales at the Amsterdam Airport. Jan Willem Tulp

It's funny how fast certain sections of a book can get dated. In the case of The Functional Art, one of the Profiles, about visualization designers Jan Willem Tulp and Gregor Aisch, is titled "The Rising Stars." I think I should change the gerund in future editions and use a participle risen—; both have shown what they are capable of already. Just visit their portfolios. As I wrote in the intro to the chapter, Jan Willem and Gregor "don’t work together. In fact, they don’t even live close to each other (...) Nevertheless, I decided to talk to them together because I think their work is the most creative among the new breed of freelance information designers who seems to be flourishing in central Europe."

Here you have a portion of our conversation.

Can you explain how you produce your projects?

Jan Willem Tulp The process differs depending on the project. Some clients are really open and give me a lot of creative freedom. Others, magazines in particular, have a clearer idea of what they want, and they usually send an example picture of the kind of illustration they want for an article. The amount of preliminary exploration differs per project. The power of visualization is, of course, that it allows you to see what the data looks like. I always try to make my data visible as soon as possible, so I do a lot of prototyping and sketching.

To mention just one example, one of my first graphics was a visual tool for analyzing tax-free sales at the airport of Amsterdam. The airport officials had a huge data set that was updated constantly. They wanted to be able to study which stores sell more and less, and be able to filter the data by airline, by time range, and so on. They already had a tool that let them plot the data in simple graphs, such as bar charts, but they wanted something more advanced. The fun part is that they mentioned that they wished to create something really sophisticated to convince all departments at the airport of the value of visualization.

A big part of the process for this project was regularly checking if the visualization was helping to answer the questions they had. I had many meetings with the airport analysts to show them what I had at each point. They were the ones who were going to use the tool, capturing screenshots of it to put in their regular reports, so we had to make sure that the graphics made sense. That was the priority: The tool should support sensible insights, and after that, it should look nice, too. It was stressed that it should not be just a fancy-looking tool, but it should be something of value to them.

Gregor Aisch My own personal projects always start with a problem I identify, or a data set I am interested in exploring. Coming from a computer science background, I’m confronted with a lot of interesting stuff in economics, society and politics, so visualizing key datasets of those domains is a way for me to learn new things. Sometimes, by doing that, I find something really interesting during these processes, a story which is worth publishing.

For instance, at the moment I’m very interested in the network of media corporations. There’s a lot of talk about the role of mass media in our societies, so I believe it is crucial to learn about the corporations behind newspapers, magazines, and TV stations. So I did a bit of research and found a database of media ownership networks in Germany and started to visualize it using JavaScript and D3.

A network of media corporations in Germany, by Gregor Aisch

Among the people you admire, who would you say that have influenced you the most, and why? 

Gregor Aish Among the historical figures, I admire the work of Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz. That great ideal they promoted of developing a universal visual language to communicate across borders simply amazes me and drives my work until today. After Neurath’s death, his wife, Marie Neurath, started to use ISOTYPE infographics to teach kids in developing countries that they should go to school, brush their teeth, care about pregnancy, and so on. Those are the kind of things that I love about visualization and infographics: The potential to help change the world for the better.

Neurath’s work exemplified the power of natural visual metaphors. A plain bar chart, praised a lot for its efficiency in communicating numbers, also has the potential of scaring people away because it’s also a very abstract representation. We should be aware that some people are not able to connect emotionally to highly  
efficient charts, but do feel attracted to, and understand, displays that include little pictograms, icons, and illustrations. Fun can promote learning.

Among the modern practitioners, I appreciate the work of David McCandless. It is true he has done some commercial projects that have very little value in terms of communicating data, and he has been justly criticized for them. Nevertheless, some of his more personal visualizations are quite engaging and worth seeing.

Jan Willem Tulp There are two I’d like to mention: Moritz Stefaner and Jer Thorp. I like Moritz’s work because, as I’ve collaborated with him in some projects, I have seen that he can really justify every design decision he makes. He can elaborate very well on what he wants to communicate, and he is very skilled at emphasizing the core stories and the interesting parts in his visualizations.  The work of Jer Thorp is also very beautiful. His best graphics let you have a different perspective on the issues they cover and lead you to become aware of facts you didn’t realize were there.