Analog Algorithms with Stefanie Posavec
Today is workshop day, and I’ve been lucky enough to sit in a half day session with Stefanie Posavec, who ran a class called “Analog Algorithms”, focussed on developing ideas for data visualizations on paper. Stefanie has history with Microsoft Research Cambridge, having worked a number of years ago on a visualization of changes made by Charles Darwin to the Origin of Species. This is work she did with Greg McInerny, which ended up on display at MOMA in New York, as part of the excellent Talk To Me exhibition.
Today’s workshop took place on the 9th floor of the Walker Art Centre. We sat four to a table, with large sheets of paper in front of us, and many pens and pencils also arrayed. Definitely set up for something hands on.
Stefanie started by going over her background and portfolio. She articulated the purpose of data visualizations as giving “meaning and connection”, “subtle insight” and “truth and honesty”, and argued that by drawing on paper you exploited a “tacit knowledge” and a physicality in representation that you don’t get by jumping straight to data and code.
A few highlights from her list of related work:
- The Conditional Design Workbook, which plays with people as part of a generative system.
- The work of Sol Lewitt, especially Work from Instructions (1971).
- The hand drawn data artwork of Kat Masback.
- Gestalt theories of visual perception.
- The intensly detailed artwork of Sam Winston, particularly Birth-Day.
The rest of the session was spent sketching data visualizations that were developed in response to some sort of data set, some set of rules (that we defined) and some mix of metaphor or aesthetic choice that we brought to the problem. She emphasised this practice of making subjective communication choices, and testing them by using the raw data. Using the data you might look for stories that you would expect your visualization to reveal, or you might look for extremes, to see if your visualization could cope. She fed in ideas of using visual metaphor (plants, night sky and so on) but in such a way that it wasn’t overt.
As a warm up exercise, Stefanie read out a set of rules which allowed each of us to generate a “data selfie”. These included, for example, “if you’re female, select a purple pen, if you’re male select a green pen. Draw a series of lines in a circle where the number of lines is your age and the length of the lines equates to your height”. Going from there she threw in other rules based on eye and hair color, glasses and so on. Here’s my selfie:
From there we did a set of exercised based on a number of data sources, including a library book collection, and finally a bigger project based on weather data from the Minneapolis region.
My library data sketches:
Weather data for a month:
Good start to Eyeo. Really got my brain churning and set me up well for the rest of the festival.