Monday, December 03, 2012

Why I am a Designer

I'm an introvert. I am reluctant to speak up in groups but I have always felt like I have something to say. Design, and visual design in particular, is a way of speaking or communicating. This was true in my early days as an exhibit designer and it is true in my work as an interaction designer. It is also the case for the presentations I've assembled over the years to visualize issues for clients and co-workers. I have always been as fascinated by the effort to communicate the idea as I am in the idea itself.

Maps are another example of my interest in design and communication. They are deeply immersive. They hover between the visual and verbal. They are words that we read and images that we view. As visual and language-using animals inhabiting a world we seek to understand, maps represent the pinnacle of media.  This is why I love creating maps.

Design for me is the opportunity to "speak" to people and to do it in a way that engages our visual and verbal nature. It is my attempt to find my voice.

Monday, November 05, 2012

"For many Americans, Sandy has highlighted the relationship between a warming planet and intensifying extreme weather. For others, it’s provided more fodder for jokes mocking the problem."
-- Stephan Lacey writing about Republicans joking about climate change before and after Hurricane Sandy 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Subway Map of Maps That Use Subway Maps as a Metaphor

I thought of this concept a while back after noticing more and more subway-style maps being used to show other things. I finally got around to mocking it up. I still have more work to do on it but I thought I would post it before someone else comes up with the same idea. After finishing the first draft, I stumbled on the Cool Infographics page on Subway Maps which includes several more examples of concepts diagrammed as a subway map so I will have to add them in in the next version. Here are the links for all the subway-style maps I've found so far (the "stations" on my map)

Transit Map Directory - Too many to include (London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, etc.) and not the point

A Transit Map of Transit Maps, done by Mark Ovenden as a promo for his Transit Maps of the World Book. First discovered on Big Think 
Cameron Booth has done a number of subway-inspired maps including a map of Amtrak's train routes and France's railways.

Cameron has also mapped a number of highways systems as subway maps including the US Interstate Highway System and Europe's major highways.

Stamen's "The City from the Valley" Project

Pan Am Flight Routes - Thanks to Cameron Booth for finding this reference for me.
I'm still looking for this example.

US National Parks - Also covered here
Wine regions in France: Discovered on the Strange Maps Blog with the DeLong Wine original here

Mississippi River: Created by Daniel Huffman who has also mapped the Colorado, Columbia, Yukon, and St. Lawrence Rivers (among others) on his website
The River Thames has been mapped, quite seriously as a subway-style map to show river buses, river tour companies and the piers where they stop.  


Web Trends by Information Architects

Please let me know if you know of a Subway-style map that I've left out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Steven Johnson on the Wisdom of Swarms

Steven Johnson, author or a number of great, thought-provoking titles including 'Emergence' and 'Where Good Ideas Come From' has just released a new book titled, 'Future Perfect'. In a post about it on his blog he includes the following quote from 'Emergence',
"To old-school progressives, the protesters appeared to be headless, out of control, a swarm of small causes with no organizing principle—and to a certain extent they’re right in their assessment. What they fail to recognize is that there can be power and intelligence in a swarm, and if you’re trying to do battle against a distributed network like global capitalism, you’re better off becoming a distributed network yourself."
The quote was written about the Seattle anti-World Trade Organization protests but, as Johnson points out, could just as easily apply to the Occupy Wall Street protesters of today. The spirit of that quote, in many ways a closing thought and not the central thesis, came to dominate discussions and derivative thinking. It is clearly a sign of the times that distributed network organizations dominate the headlines while those based on hierarchies struggle to adapt (with the possible exception of China).

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Map of the Strange Border and Banking Policies Between Austria and Germany around Jungholz

There is no shortage of interesting exclaves around the world and Jungholz does not disappoint. Like many other European exclaves, Jungholz owes its origins to Germany's Feudal era. Jungholz lies in a valley in the Alps. Once a German farmstead, it was sold to a new owner in what would eventually become Austria in 1342. Its location, completely surrounded by Germany was overlooked and eventually accepted as fact. There are no direct roads from Austria proper to Jungholz. By car, you must leave Austria, travel through Germany and then re-enter Austria in order to get to Jungholz. Accommodations have been made to ease the situation by giving Jungholz two area codes and two postal addresses, one German and one Austrian.

Perhaps the most interesting "dividend" of Jungholz's unique location is its banking rules. It has three German banks that operate a bit like their Cayman Island counterparts… off-shore banking without all the sand between your toes. As German banks operating inside Jungholz's tax-free status they offer the ability to transfer money to and from other German banks without incurring any fees. And since they operate inside of Austria, they are allowed to provide the cover of Austria's confidential banking laws which are second only to Switzerland's. One bank even has a James Bond-inspired bank product called, Goldfinger. According to an article on the Travel Intelligence website, the Reiffeisenbank offers the following reassurance to the prospective customer, “There are moments in life when you can’t compromise on confidentiality - for instance, when it comes to your money. Our Goldfinger Numbered Account makes absolute confidentiality a reality.”

Geographic isolation has its privileges.


Friday, July 06, 2012

A Map of the Border between Malawi and Mozambique Near the Islands of Likoma and Chizumulu

I was browsing through a list of exclaves around the world when I happened upon these two islands in Eastern Africa. The islands are Malawian territory but sit entirely within Mozambique's territorial waters. I am shocked at the lack of drama behind some strange borders and these two islands appear to be no exception. Most of the history behind the border can be traced to the explorer, David Livingstone's explorations in the region and the establishment of the, "Universities Mission to Central Africa" Station on the Island of Likoma.

Upon reaching Lake Malawi in 1859, Livingstone named it Lake Nyasa. As the British began to colonize the African continent, they eventually claimed all of the territory surrounding the lake and named it Nyasaland. Portugal then colonized the Eastern shore of the lake. Since the British still had their mission station on Likoma Island, the islands were given to Malawi when the final borders were drawn up.

Although ownership of the islands is not under dispute, the name of the lake is. Malawi obviously prefers "Lake Malawi". Most other nearby nations prefer "Lake Nyasa". According to Wikipedia, the name Nyasa came about from a mistake in translation. Upon arriving at the Lake, David Livingstone asked his guide for the name of the lake. The word that came back was "Nyasa". However, nyasa basically meant "lake," the generic word not the lake's proper name. Lake Nyasa stuck but should be translated as "Lake Lake" in other languages. I have seen this happen many times when researching the history behind a place name for my maps. Many of the names for native peoples are the result of this type of confusion between a local population and foreign explorers.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The remarkable, Lake Wakatipu

This is a shot of Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand outside of Queenstown that I took back in 2005. We were on our way to going canyoning (which turned out to be scarier than the bungy jump we had done the day before). Mt. Aspiring National Park might be visible in the far distance in this photo. The hills on the left shore of the Lake might be part of "The Remarkables," so named because they are aligned in a North-South orientation which is apparently remarkable for mountains (I didn't know). Really, the whole South Island of New Zealand should be called, The Remarkables.

Monday, June 04, 2012

A Map of the Stanford Linear Accelerator in Palo Alto, CA

I've always been fascinated that I-280 in Palo Alto goes over the top of a particle accelerator. It's not everyday that you can drive over the top of a Nobel Prize winning Physics Lab. I also find the curve of the highway against the accelerator's "straightest building on Earth" geometry interesting so I decided to make this map. As I was looking at the satellite images, I was intrigued by the chaos of buildings at the terminus (right side) of the accelerator. They almost look like they were the victim of a series of particle collisions themselves.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Central Park TypeMap - sketch #2

This is another map in my Typemap series. It is still something of an experiment but I decided it was worth posting. I started working on it about a month ago but it was dancing around in my head for the last six months. There are aspects that looked better in my head but it's getting closer. The effect I'm after is a sea of organic type in a setting or prison of rectilinear streets.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Observations on Surviving a Disaster: A Costa Concordia Concord

I've never been attracted to cruise ship vacations and I'm even less interested now that I've seen the news of the Costa Concordia disaster. But any disaster also makes me imagine what it must have been like to be there. My guess is that the chaos of the evacuation and subsequent rescues were quite typical of many disasters even though the Captain of the Costs Concordia appears to have been especially inept.

Being able to quickly and safely evacuate something as big as a town, particularly when it happens to be in the middle of the ocean seems like a tall order under any circumstances let alone when the ship is sinking. Cruise ship companies say they can evacuate everyone on board within a very short window of time but I wonder if their projections take into account passengers of various mental and physical abilities, the inevitable crew problems, and the fact that escape routes will be changing as the ship sinks. It makes me wonder whether the race to build ever bigger cruise ships is right from a safety perspective. Beyond the specific players of the Costa Concordia, it seems like there are lessons to be learned here for any disaster.

In the critical minutes after disaster strikes, those in charge may be in denial of the scale of the emergency
This certainly seems to be the case with the captain of the Costa Concordia. Passengers may need to question decisions if they don't jibe with what you're seeing. Admitting the problem and calling for an "abandon ship" is perhaps the best and worst thing a captain might have to do from a career perspective so he or she may be reluctant to do so even when all signs point to it's necessity. You should expect a lack of clear communication. Worse, they may also feed bad information to subordinates who will then be feeding it to you. The many calls for passengers to return to their cabins was an example of this. If my cabin was any lower than the top level, I'd be high-tailing up to the open decks to keep my options open.

Drills and exercises may not adequately prepare crew members for the chaos of a full-on disaster
In the face of extreme emergency, almost anyone is likely to be overwhelmed or perhaps experiencing disbelief. Highly functioning organizations like the Navy Seals, the Marines, and fire departments drill over and over so reactions become second nature. On a cruise ship, the crew's normal day-to-day "drill" is running a hotel, keeping guests happy and literally re-arranging deck chairs. Should we really expect them to act as well as a marine or paramedic in the face of death and disaster?

Even well-thought out emergency plans have to change in reaction to the specifics of a disaster
Ever since the Titanic, cruise ships have to carry enough life boats for everyone on board. But what happens when a sinking ship quickly lists to one side? Do they carry twice as many life boats as needed? Life boats on both sides of the Costa Concordia became inoperable when the ship tipped under water on one side and got stuck on the other, high side. Timing is also an issue. Can lifeboats be filled and deployed right away or do denial, chaos and disorganization conspire to delay some boats and send others away half empty.

There are many stories of survivors from other disasters who lived only because they took matters into their own hands and scrambled for exits while others hesitated and died. Perhaps the one smart thing the captain did among the many bad things was to aim the ship for land and beach it close enough for some to jump and swim to shore. This allowed a few brave souls to take matters into their own control. Beaching the boat also seems to have allowed lifeboats and other nearby ships to make multiple trips to and from the ship while others remained incapacitated. There were stories of some crew members unable to steer the boats away from the ship once they were full. Until you're experienced, steering a boat can be counter-intuitive. Yet another example of inadequate training. The drills probably extend to getting the boats lowered into the water but do they include experience once under power?

I hope I never know what it's like to experience a disaster of this magnitude. But if I do, I plan to listen to what officials have to say, decide whether the plan makes sense and then play an active role in my own survival.

Friday, January 06, 2012

In Time, "Form Follows Function"

In Louis Sullivan's classic statement, "Form Follows Function" it is function that is usually seen as the dominant member of this design duality. It was one of the first design tenets that I learned in college and one that remains a core part of my design philosophy to this day. That said, I can't think of a single design project where the opposite wasn't true at least some of the time. The truth is that we are visual beings. We are often quick and astute judges of form. We know when something looks right and when it looks wrong, even if we haven't studied design. On top of this, function can rarely be judged at a quick glance. By definition, you must use the object, building, shirt, service before you can truly judge it's functional quality. The net result of this is that many designs are judged based on their form first and function second… despite Sullivan's admonition.

In my experience, most designers remain faithful to one camp even as they evolve to see both sides of the coin. I see many function-minded designers create mockups that address many of the requirements but result in a design that is awkward and ugly. I also see many form-focused designers who are almost incapable of creating an ugly mark on a page but who excel at ignoring or forgetting key user needs. The best products are the result of hard work at addressing issues on both sides of the fence.

I also notice this dialog happening in my own design process. I remain focused on function in my heart but I've acknowledged how often this has resulted in a proposal that, though more functional has lost out to a more stylish alternate proposal. I find myself removing details from concept proposals to postpone discussions of thorny requirements. As I was pondering this issue while reading some of Don Norman's teachings, I realize I am not the first functionalist to come to this understanding.

I remember hearing Don Norman speak at TED about his revelation that function was not everything. If I remember it correctly, he talked about a response to his concerns about light switches and burner controls on a stove. In both examples, the mapping of the controls usually relates poorly if at all to the mapping of the actual lights or burners. So, in order to prove his point, he redesigned the light switch for his living room so it featured a floor plan with the switches placed in close relation to the light switch it controlled. The result was highly functional but one of the most ugly light switches I've ever seen. Apparently his wife agreed and told him she hated the switch and wanted the old, less functional one back. I remember seeing the light switch in his book and thinking it a monstrosity of design. I recall a similar scenario with train schedules in Edward Tufte's first book, "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information".

Mies Van der Rohe was such a big proponent of "form follows function" that he is often credited with penning the quote. Mies is famous for his simple, Germanic designs both in elevation and plan. Details are all thought out but as minimal as possible. A skyscraper is a series of vertical I-beams with Windows in between each I-beam. Mies' belief in this tenet was so strong that he broke his own belief on his design of the Seagram Building to make the point. Though I-beams are a basic element of every skyscraper, it is rare that the beams are left exposed. Most of covered in fireproofing and then hidden behind a cladding or wall. Mies Van der Rohe's answer to this on the Seagram Building was to basically add a decorative I-beam to the outermost edge of his facade. These I-beams are pure decoration… no different than the heavy rustication used in Renaissance villas or the highly ornate terra-cotta tiles on many of Louis Sullivan's early skyscrapers.

All of this makes me think of the original statement. Mies started the building with the best of purely functional intentions. But he knew in his heart that there was an aesthetic to what he was proposing and that he sometimes needed to stray into the realm of form to make his functional ambitions clear. Sullivan's early skyscrapers are known as much for the heavy use of ornament… maybe as a way to soften the shock of the sudden appearance of tall structures in the urban landscape. Perhaps his strong belief in his own statement took for granted that ornament (one type of form) would always be present. As one element of a building, ornament should be applied in a way that follows the lines (function) of the building rather than in an otherwise unrelated pattern.

Since I am grounded on the functional side, I can not speak for the process of those that are on the form side of the equation. For me, I start with function, then proceed to adjusting the form to make a more visually pleasing solution. So, from a scheduling perspective, form does follow function. My success is for others to decide but that is my process.