Outlook 2015: Zoic Studios' Matt Thunell - Big data & design collide
Matt Thunell
Issue: December 1, 2014

Outlook 2015: Zoic Studios' Matt Thunell - Big data & design collide

By Matt Thunell
Executive Producer, Commercials
Zoic Studios
Culver City, CA/Vancouver, Canada

Increasingly, it seems that every facet of our digital lives is recorded, processed, shared, sold and marketed. Our purchasing habits, search queries, geospatial location, emails and social media activities are captured by a network of cloud services and cameras. The generated data is both historical and realtime. And it exists in large volume. Moreover, the time has come for a new design concentration — one that centers on data as the subject, with a humanistic sense of purpose. 

It can be difficult to visualize these formless experiences. How do we model all of this data? What do normal patterns and anomalies look like? How do we extrapolate meaning from them? Who is analyzing them and why? At Zoic Studios, we were recently challenged with these and similar questions, in the context of visualizing Twitter data in a specific metropolitan area. The first task at hand was to decipher the “mood” of a tweet based on word choice and hashtags. Next, our design team set out to create a virtual mood milieu, with a defined visual language. One example was based on the setting of a neural network, with individual tweets represented as nerve fibers and dendrites. Nerve fiber colors and movement behaviors were based on a programmed system. For example, “angry” was color-coded from a warm palette and the fiber moved rapidly in disjointed fashion; whereas, the “happy” fiber was represented by a neutral shade of yellow and moved gently as a curved line. The main objective was to step back and view millions of tweets at the same time, to determine the aggregate feeling at a glance: Is the city agitated or content?

Currently, this type of project is a collaboration between two industries. Big data analysts and graphic designers work at two ends of the spectrum, from technical to artistic. Analysts focus on algorithms and cognitive systems, with a background in Hadoop programming. Designers create user interfaces and render pixels on screens, with a background in art and computer graphics. The analyst provides a filtered data feed, which plugs into a custom-designed visualization platform (Unity or WebGL-based), to tell stories and convey feelings.

But in the coming year, I believe we’ll begin to see more crossover between the two industries, as data is becoming an expressive medium of design in its own right. The data designer of the future will be concerned with the type, movement, meaning, and visualization of data as a singular discipline. This designer will need to mine and understand the data behind their interfaces, in effort to create a world where data allows people to spend less time with computers and more on life itself.