MoMA’S Design and the Elastic Mind show reveals design’s role in mapping the digital frontiers of today’s world. By HUGH ALDERSEY-WILLIAMS
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, explorers would return from their voyages describing new places and new wonders they had seen. Each time, cartographers would publish what was routinely termed ‘a new map of the world‘. We tend to think the job is done today. But new maps of the world are appearing faster than ever – and they look like nothing ever seen before.
The new maps are often not geographic but informatic, describing regions that lie one way or another beyond the visual. When human experience becomes too complex to hold in the memory, we strive to create memorable images of that experience. It is thought that musical notation was devised at just the point when people had created more music than could be simply remembered. Likewise, maps were not important until people’s horizons expanded beyond their locality. It’s the same now, except that our need is to picture vast banks of data, information flows, and regions of space beyond the scale of human imagining.
A timely exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York includes many pioneering examples of such work. Design and the Elastic Mind examines the growing overlap between design and science. There was once no distinction between the two disciplines. Leonardo da Vinci, the archetypal Renaissance man, was a master of both. The physicist Robert Hooke was also an architect, while Christopher Wren was enough of a scientist to join him as one of the founders of the Royal Society.
Joris Laarman’s Bone Chair: finished object top (Image by Bas Helbers), process above (Image by Opel)
Today, there are strong arguments for a reconvergence of design and science. Design has much to gain by inspiration from nature, while science could use designers’ skills in visualization. The MoMA exhibition looks at both of these strands. Furniture and artefacts by Freedom of Creation, Materialise, Joris Laarman and others show how nature can inspire forms that are fantastical and yet demonstrate material economy. Many designers are exploring the new materials coming out of biological laboratories, none to greater effect than Tobie Kerridge, Nikki Sott and Ian Thompson, whose Biojewellery project (below) enables you to wear a ring made of bone tissue cultured from your partner.
But it is in data space where the real potential may lie. Curators Paola Antonelli and Patricia Juncosa Vecchierini suggest that ‘one of design’s most fundamental tasks is to stand between revolutions and life, and to help people deal with change’ – in other world to help us find our way, to give us a map. They cite Mosaic, the browser that introduced graphics to the internet thereby boosting its accessibility and popularity, as one such world-changing development.
The exhibition includes a number of concepts that build on this key innovation. There are easily imagined incremental improvements to what we all happily use today, such as moon.google.com and mars.google.com, or Paul Degnan’s gmaps-pedometer.com that allows you to measure distances by double-clicking along a chosen route. Other projects combine map data with special interests to show areas of high crime or terrorist risk – or happier things: Janis Mussat and Adam Putter’s site called The Beerhunter needs no further explanation.
Such projects show how maps, formerly in the hands of authority, can be subverted. Mexican Raúl Cárdenas Osuna’s LRPT project (shown above, the initials translate as ‘cross-border trouser region’) centres on a pair of trousers with hidden compartments where an illegal immigrant might hide false documents. The garment also incorporates a GPS device. Data sent by many wearers over time builds up a map of successful border crossing points.
Maps are one of the most powerful forms of visualization we have, and so it is not surprising to find that they remain a dominant paradigm even when the information has no geographic dimension. Genomic Cartography, a project developed by Ben Fry at the MIT Media Lab, represents the genes that make up the human genome or individual chromosomes visually coded by size and function. TextArc by Bradford Paley is a system for visualizing literary texts that transforms the concordance (an alphabetical list of words appearing in a work with their locations) into a kind of solar system. It graphically depicts how the reader’s mind is captured by the storyteller’s words pulling like a planet’s gravity.
Barrett Lyon’s Opte Project maps the internet itself. As in conventional geography, the act of drawing the map reveals unexplored territory – here in the form of intellectual property. In a project called Walrus, Young Hyun of the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis also produces graphical representations of web links that resemble art – or nature. His images, made up of gossamer thin lines and luminous data points, have been compared to transparent jellyfish in a backlit tank. It is no coincidence that both designers resort to a fish-eye view that moulds their data space into a globe that evokes our stock image of the planet Earth. The still images appear beautiful and more than a little mysterious. Their utility is revealed when you start interacting. ‘Legibility of still images wasn’t as important because we’ve found careful use of interactivity enhances legibility,’ notes Young Hyun.
Fernanda Bertini Viégas and Martin Wattenberg of IBM’s Collaborative User Experience research group have devised a less awe-inspiring, but arguably more informative application that visualizes the editing history of Wikipedia pages. The multicoloured graphs of History Flow show at a glance how data has been added or distorted. For its creators, the project ‘wasn’t helped by the rapid accumulation of digital data – it was forced by it.’
A heady cocktail of software makes all this possible: Java, 3d MAX, PHP, MySQL, Google Maps API and various markup languages are combined with database information from GPS feeds, newswires and a host of other sources. What’s a bit odd is to see the results displayed in a gallery. Ben Fry’s letters of genetic code are artfully arrayed to look good hanging on a wall. Information design has traditionally emphasized utility, but this is changing, says Fry. ‘If you’re looking at a piece that’s beautiful, but you find that there’s no functional meaning, the beauty escapes. At the same time, a wholly functional piece might be ignored if it’s not worth looking at.’ These days Fry finds himself getting more work that emphasizes form. But he is wary nonetheless of new dangers. ‘You can make beautiful abstract things from data that are utterly meaningless, yet they seem somehow more important or functional because they’re “data”.’
Bradford Paley agrees: ‘Much of the work I see that gets press is actually unreadable: data in, pretty pictures out, but no way to get the “data” out again’ For him, beauty is neither an alternative to function, nor a bolt-on extra. The two bear a more subtle relation to one another: ‘Beauty is a personal goal, but I believe that it can come from the accurate and comfortable representation of data.’ Young Hyun found it also came out of technical constraints: ‘For example, to use limited display space more efficiently, we chose to twist each level of the rendered graph in a purely algorithmic way by 60 degrees relative to its parent. Beautiful organic forms emerged unexpectedly from this.’
Many scientists and mathematicians would agree. For them, beauty is intrinsic to the fundamental relationships in nature. But when those relationships lie beyond the range of what is truly visible – for example when they describe the expansion of the universe or the behaviour of subatomic particles – there is suddenly a new question as to whether that beauty may be represented visually or must remain strictly abstract. The pioneers of quantum physics disagreed sharply over this, some finding visual images helpful in understanding the weird goings-on at this scale, others insisting that visualizations were deceptive because a familiar image had the power to override the reality.
One can always argue about beauty of course, and one can argue about functionality too. But what the new visualization seems to share is an immediate graphic legibility – it at least looks to the uninformed glance as if it might be portraying something understandable. This is important. Whether it actually turns out to be understandable – or whether one bothers to try to understand it – is another matter. And whether it turns out to be true in some deep sense may, as in the case of quantum physics, ultimately not matter if meanwhile it is helping people to grasp what is going on. Familiar as we are with ordinary maps, few of us have any great conceptual difficulty with the idea of a ‘map‘ of the internet or the human genome. We’re all visualizers now.
There is nothing new here in a sense. All that’s changed is the extent of the complexity we are required to navigate on a daily basis. After rapid expansion during the reign of Victoria, London must have seemed a chaotic place indeed by 1900, with rival underground railways merely adding to the tangle. But Harry Beck’s schematic Underground map of 1931 suddenly made the city legible. A complex network was not so much simplified (the complexity is still in the map, after all) but distilled into an image so effective that it has become a universal icon for the city itself. The curators of Design and the Elastic Mind believe that stretching our ability to create and appreciate such visualizations can force our evolution so that we are able to understand a more complex world.
This article also appears in the April issue of Creative Review. Design and the Elastic Mind is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 24 February–12 May. Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s latest book, Panicology, has just been published by Viking Penguin.