Visualisation Insights: #8 Visualisation Designer
This is the eighth article in my Visualisation Insights series. The purpose of this series is to provide readers with unique insights into the field of visualisation from the different perspectives of those in the roles of designer, practitioner, academic, blogger, journalist and all sorts of other visual thinkers. My aim is to bring together these interviews to create a greater understanding and appreciation of the challenges, approaches and solutions emerging from these people – the visualisation world’s cast and crew.
Nathaniel Pearlman is the President of Timeplots, a Washington DC based design venture dedicated to making the visual display of information more comprehensible and more aesthetic.
The aim of Timeplots is to tell complex stories in visual form. Their design offering is split into ‘public’ projects, which are typically based on subject matter relating to political history, and private ‘Timeplots on Demand’ for individuals/organisations seeking to map their specific stories or subjects.
The resulting visual forms are wonderful, intricate, enlightening pieces of information artworks that are available for purchase as high quality prints. They are more than simply informative posters, they are incredibly dense, beautiful pieces of visualisation that demonstrate the craft at its finest. Every visual element deployed adds value to the information exchange:
Timeplots are carefully crafted to provide a clear, comprehensive perspective of a specific subject. Every product is created to be lasting information art that reveals new patterns and details upon repeated viewings.
I greatly admire Nathaniel and his collaborators’ work and so was delighted when he agreed to take part in an interview for this series, allowing me to find out more about his background, the Timeplots venture and the design process behind these amazing works.
Can you give me a brief outline of your career/educational background leading up to your current life as a visualisation designer?
As a kid I was an ardent follower of politics and sports, and I think that’s where my interest in data and its visualization began. I learned to program on an Apple II Plus and experimented with graphing all kinds of things; as a high schooler I was teaching computer programming to both adults and children. Then I got more formal training with a degree in computer science at Yale. I worked for a few years as a professional programmer before spending four years in the doctoral program in Political Science at MIT, where I concentrated in American political and methodology (mainly statistics). I did everything but write my dissertation there, instead leaving to found NGP Software, Inc. (now NGP VAN, Inc.), which has grown into a 130+ person political software company. Along the way I conceived of a lot of visualization projects, but never had the time to tackle them until recently when I founded Timeplots as a vehicle to do it.
I notice your undergraduate studies took place at Yale and you were a student of Edward Tufte. That must have been a fabulous experience to receive such an esteemed grounding in the subject at the beginning of your career?
Definitely the class with Tufte was influential. I once blogged about it here: http://nworld.squarespace.com/blog/2005/2/27/data-analysis-with-edward-tufte.html
Would you say, therefore, that Tufte’s principles have had the strongest influence on your design style/principles? Are there any other authors/designers/practitioners/academics that have had a profound impact on your work?
I think less about Tufte principles in particular, though some are quite influential with me, and more about the quality of his books, in substance, design, layout and prose when working on Timeplots. I like that he did it his own way and I try to do mine my way. I think the biggest challenge is to find the time and resources to do something really well. I’d say I’m learning a craft and have a long way to go. I think highly of other people I studied with at Yale, MIT and Harvard, including Professors Mayhew, Perlis, Ansolabehere, King, Stewart, Snyder. I am inspired by people with high standards for themselves and others. I’d include the potter Marguerite Wildenhain, woodworkers like Sam Maloof and Wharton Esherick. I like people who have found a way to make a living doing their own thing. I also am a reader and I have a couple of shelves of books on design, information graphics, data visualization.
What is the best piece of advice you have received or would wish to impart to other visualisation designers?
What is your business model for Timeplots: Where did the motivation come from? What are your aims? Do you offer services for private projects alongside your public work? Where would you like to see it progress over the coming years?
I hope that Timeplots settles on a good business model. Right now we are selling posters and doing some one-off contracting work, but I imagine it will evolve over time. The motivation came from a bunch of things. I had the chance to step away from day-to-day management of my software company and I wanted to revisit some of the challenges of bootstrapping another business. I wanted the new thing to produce something tangible with an aesthetic component. I had some ideas (like a visual history of the senate) that had been something I had wanted to do for 20 years. I wanted to learn new things and acquire new skills. I had a long-standing interest in data visualization and I wanted an excuse to pursue it. I wanted to meet people in that space and learn from them. So we will see how it goes. I’d like to find some more good folks to work with – anyone reading this interested?
Your first project involved a three part series visualising the history of major US political institutions, what was the inspiration behind you undertaking this work, what inspired the subject matter?
I’m a student of American political history and as much as anything, I wanted these posters for myself. I should note here the hard work of the folks who have worked with me along the way on the research, programming, and design of these posters. The prints are time-consuming and my main roles are idea generator, knowledge repository, editor, and funder.
What has been the most pleasing feedback or comment you have received about this series/project?
I am really honoured when someone actually takes their hard-earned money, buys my work among all the possible things available in this world, and puts it on their wall. I love seeing them in someone’s home or office. Right now we have a little show at the coffee shop at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC. I like seeing people stand in front of one of the posters, trying to puzzle it out. My work is not generally meant to be absorbed in one passing.
You have recently launched a fantastic new Timeplots project with two works on the visual history of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Can you outline some of the design process and decisions that lie behind these pieces?
Well I keep meaning to get away from politics, but I wanted to get a history of the American political parties in first. And I wanted them to be a bit more accessible that the previous prints we’ve done, so I’ve allowed myself to put in more images and photos, which I generally steer away from. I’m curious to see if this makes them more or less popular.
How do you conceive the designs? Do you sketch ideas/compositions out on paper first or get into exploratory analysis looking for insights and stories?
We start with a set of questions to answer. We use a whiteboard. The party posters may look like reasonably straightforward decorated timelines, but we struggled for a long time over the design and what would be the central story, finally settling on a measure of party strength to work around.
How do you decide on the dimensions of information that you will seek to incorporate into the design?
I guess that is an intersection of what is available, what is interesting, what is meaningful, and what fits.
How do you involve collaborators in the project?
I reach out to folks who are highly knowledgeable (professors, practitioners, experts) in the subject matter at hand, and email them early drafts of the prints for feedback.
How long does each piece typically take?
Too many months to admit here. I hope we can get better and faster at it.
What software/technical resources do you use to develop the works?
These are programmed in R and cleaned up in Illustrator. I’m open to other ways, would love to hear how others do it.
Can you explain some of the most challenging design decisions you had made on any of the visual properties in these designs?
The amount of data on the U.S. Senate poster (every Senator in history) was very difficult to fit into a poster format. We went a long way down several other paths before settling on the current design.
One of the key aspects of any creative process is knowing when to stop adding or subtracting from the design: how did you/do you handle this delicate stage of the project?
I want to keep adding and subtracting still to everything I’ve done. I know it could make them all better. It is very hard to stop. Subtracting is probably more important and I probably need to get better at that.
What plans do you have for future Timeplots projects? Will they continue to be paper based ‘artworks’ or have you ever considered developing them as digital/interactive pieces?
I’d like to do interactive projects with optional prints associated with them. I’m thinking about a baseball print, maybe, next. You can do amazing things interactively, but as someone who has been in software for a long time, it seems so much less tangible. My prints are far better on a nice big sheet of heavy paper than trying to scroll around on a digital device.
How do you see the state of the visualisation field right now?
Booming, and all over the place. It appears to be moving fast. But it is still hard to find really great stuff, or stuff to my taste, at least.
What are the things that excite you/keep you positive about the way the visualisation is advancing?
I like when something that is very difficult to understand can be made clear by a new method of presentation. I wish someone would tackle redesigning my Carefirst healthcare billing statement, for example. It is dreadful and I cannot make heads or tails of it. At some point I would love to be able to contribute to public policy by helping to clarify important matters.
Are there any aspects that frustrate or disappoint you?
I have not yet learned how to market my own stuff very well. I’m a bit shy and I find that area frustrating. And finding the time to do all the things I want to do.
Finally, a chance for you to recommend or promote other designers/practitioners in the field – are there any people or work you would strongly recommend for readers to take a look at?
I like the Wallstats poster on the U.S. budget. Historyshots also produces good work. I like the folks at Juice Analytics who do dashboarding and such. I’m envious of all the folks with active visualization blogs with substantial readerships; I am considering starting my own and if I do it will be at graphicacy.com.
I’m extremely grateful to Nathaniel for taking part in this interview, offering some really interesting and candid insights into his world as a designer. Thanks also for the amazing speed in which he responded to my questions! I wish him and his Timeplots collaborators all the best in their future success with these exquisite visualisations. You can buy these prints direct from the Timeplots site, follow Nathaniel’s twitter updates via @timeplots and keep up with his blog updates here.