Forgetting is sometimes the best way to work on something. When you delegate a task to memory, you are able to keep only the important bits.
This summer, I completely forgot my thesis, which is probably the best thing I did. This summer, I worked for a data visualization firm called Fathom. The group consisted of a mix of designers, programmers and hybrids ( such as myself ) interested in data visualization through multiple mediums. I worked on many different projects, I learned many new things in terms of design, programming, business, etc. I was lucky enough to work with a group of very smart talented people who, for the most part, had very similar interests as I did. They were very much interested in design, programming, technology, the future and how it all came together.
Yet, there was one difference between them and me, or at least the version of me that wrote my thesis statement. These people told stories. They would say this themselves. Their work was about telling stories and making these stories understandable to people a constant conversation between the micro and the macro. It’s very interesting how many times the word “story” would pop up in conversation at a place where the last thing I thought they did was telling stories.
Data visualization never seemed to be about stories to me. On the contrary, it seemed to be directly opposed to stories. This crazy ideas I got from Lev, who wrote:
“Indeed, after the death of God (Nietzche), the end of Grand Narratives of Enlightenment (Lyotard), and the arrival of the web (Tim Berners-Lee), the world appears to us and endless and unstructured collection of images, texts and other data records, it is only appropriate that we will be moved to model it as a database” ( The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich )
I loved this book, and this book inspired many of my thesis ideas, but this summer I arrived at the terrible conclusion my dear Lev was wrong. The fact that Nietzche found God dead in his basement didn’t stop anyone from believing in God. The fact that Lyotard stumbled into progress’s, science’s a history’s death certificates, hasn’t stopped most people from believing in them. In the same way, the web and all of technology hasn’t stopped us from believing in stories. We are still, most definitely, human and the language of stories is the language we speak best. We seek stories everywhere.
For a long time, I had being searching for a definition of design. It’s very difficult to arrive at a satisfactory definition. Yet, this summer I was able to arrive at one. Design is about humanizing things, about making things for humans. It’s about telling a story where there might not be one. It’s about making one up if you have to!
What has changed in my thesis thought? I want to make things more human. I want to tell stories. But, I want to tell stories that pertain to our times using data, rules, programming, systems… If we live in a world dominated by data, databases and systems then how can we make them more human? How can we use design as a tool to highlight the uniqueness of a row in database? How can we make these systems tell stories?
The other issue I have become increasingly interested in is the issue of uniqueness. Uniqueness is very uncommon in the technological realm. Everything is uniform, everything has a default. Then, how can we use technology, systems and rules to design in a way that highlights the uniqueness of something? Is it possible to make a system that highlight the uniqueness of something?