National Highway Safety Comparison 2011

The most recent project in my data visualization class had students designing small multiple visualizations. According to Edward Tufte, in his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

Well-designed small multiples are

  • inevitably comparative
  • deftly multivariate
  • shrunken, high-density graphics
  • usually based on a large data matrix
  • drawn almost entirely with data-ink
  • efficient in interpretation
  • often narrative in content, showing shifts in the relationship between variables as the index variable changes (thereby revealing interaction or multiplicative effects).

Tatsu Johnson successfully met these criteria in his chart visualizing highway safety.

Obviously, you can’t make much out of that. First I’ll give you his description at the top of the chart. Then I’ll show you a few details.

This chart compares the highway safety of all 50 states in the US. Fatalities, drivers and population, as well as the ratio between fatalities/population, are represented as a percentage of the most dangerous states. The lower the percentage of the fatalities/drivers and fatalities/population ratio, the safer the states are in comparison to other states. The ones with the higher percentages are the most dangerous to drive in. SOURCE: Google public data, U.S. Highway Statistics.

Tatsu has employed star charts to represent each state. Every spoke represents one of the variables.

Looking at California, you can see that there are a high number of fatalities, but this is to be expected, given that the state has a large population and a lot of drivers. The most important values in understanding safety, as Tatsu explained, are the two ratios, which are average.

Other points of interest he points out are highlighted in red and green.

Connecticut and Massachusetts rank among the most dangerous states in the US with the highest percentage of fatalities per driver/population.

Mississippi, North Dakota and Wyoming are the safest states, with the best fatality per driver/population ratio.

I guess Tatsu felt that including the star template behind each state provided a better measure. I would argue that they are unnecessary, and in fact, make it more difficult to see the data shapes. The borders are also unnecessary, but were a convenient way to bring attention to states of particular note. These are minor issues in an otherwise beautifully executed visualization.

99 Designs Done Dirt Cheap

99 Designs is a web-based service that provides a place for people to post “contests” in which designers can compete by creating designs for the contest briefs. The contest creator picks the winner, who gets paid for their work. The perceived benefit for the person or business creating a contest is that they get to choose from dozens of possible designs. The supposed benefit for the designers is that they can get their work in front of a bunch of potential clients and get paid. This is what we refer to as “spec work” (speculative work), and professional designers frown upon it. The practice is bad for the people participating and bad for our industry as a whole.

I’ve made it a topic of discussion in my Design Issues class the past few times I’ve taught it. Lately, 99 Designs has been advertising on the TWIT network, and it pains me every time I hear Leo Laporte lauding the benefits. Let’s do a little math.

99 Designs boasts that they have a “community” of 293,556 designers. They also advertise that they made $2,229,376 in payouts to those designers last month. Wow, over two million! This must be a great way for designers to make some dough. Let’s say every one of their designers was equally successful. That would be $7.59 per designer. I don’t think I could live on that for a month. Of course, it’s not paid out equally. Only the designers that win get paid anything. So, what is actually happening is that there are a whole bunch of designers that make absolutely nothing in a month and a relative few that make several hundred dollars. A large project, like a significant website design, may pay a few thousand, but for those, you are competing against over 100 entries. The odds of winning a contest are slim. The odds of consistently winning contests are even slimmer. Any designer is going to end up doing a lot of work that they don’t get paid for in the hopes that the next one will be their lucky day. That’s no way to make a living. It sounds more like a gambling addiction.

So, it’s not so good for the designers. What about the clients? Well, if you are really just looking for something cheap, because you can’t afford to hire a professional, then yes, this will benefit you. But know this: a professional designer is going to work to understand your needs thoroughly and tailor a solution that is specific to you, your organization, your product, etc. If it’s a book cover, they’re going to read the book, not just work off of a couple paragraphs that give a high level overview. If it’s a logo, they are going to work closely with you over the entire course of the project, not just “polish the designs over 7 days”, as is stated on the 99 Designs homepage. They aren’t going to make decisions solely based on what they think you are going to like, but consider all of the variables that will make the artifact being designed more or less successful. When you hire a professional designer, you are going to benefit from a process through which you will develop a meaningful, rewarding designer-client relationship.

Before participating in 99 Designs or one of the similar spec work services, I encourage you to read Grace’s article, How I Quit Working for 99Designs, Crowdspring and Mycroburst. Also, see AIGA’s position on spec work and NO!SPEC, a site devoted to educating the public about spec work.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

For her time-based visualization, Lauren chose to research the history of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. She plotted the population of the hospital against the population of the county in which it stands. Then she added short descriptions of events that happened during the time that the building was in use.

All information about the hospital is in red, while information about the county is in blue. She pointed out a couple of key points on the graphs.

The background colors indicate a point where the scale was split. She used a banner below the graph to show the name changes that took place during the life of the facility. She also traced a line to indicate the number of patients the facility was intended to house—a gross underestimate of its peak usage.

It’s a fine piece of work that demonstrates Lauren’s understanding of Tufte’s principles for data visualizations.

Book Cover

Here’s the front cover of Bridging UX & Web Development. Using a photo of a bridge may be a bit obvious, but it was an opportunity for a personal tie-in. One might expect, given the topic, to see the Golden Gate or some other noteworthy bridge from the west coast. But, I’m on the east coast. I’m not a big-city person. So, I used my own photo of the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia, the state of my childhood. For many years, it was the longest steel single-span arch bridge in the world. It is now the fourth longest. I like the contrast between the structural steel and the heavily wooded hillsides. The photo wraps around to the back.


Back in the day: The Waxer

While I was an undergraduate student in the Graphic Design program at WVU, we had a little machine that would melt paraffin wax in a shallow reservoir. Then you could flip a switch to turn on the roller. As you slid pieces of paper in, it would coat one side with the wax. It would cool in seconds, leaving a thin layer that was just sticky enough to hold it to another piece of paper. We used this technique to create paste-ups with cut paper. We could rearrange elements to our heart’s content.

It occurred to me that this would be a perfect tool for paper prototyping, and I suggested it to my students in class one night. They had no idea what I was talking about. The waxer isn’t in the studio anymore—another casualty of the computer.

Who Would I Hire?

I’m not hiring. I wish I were, but that’s another post. The discussion I mentioned yesterday got me thinking. If I were hiring, who would I hire, and what would I expect of them?

I’ll break it into two “what if” situations. First, what if I could hire a senior designer?

If I were given the go-ahead by my company to hire a senior designer, I would ideally want someone with a masters degree in Interaction Design or an equivalent discipline, but several years of work experience with quality work products and obvious familiarity with a good design process would be acceptable without the degree.

Ideally, I would want a designer trained in graphic design. It would be difficult to hire a single person without visual design skills, as I wouldn’t necessarily have anyone to collaborate with them on the visual design other than myself, and part of the point of hiring another designer would be to get work done that I don’t have the time for.

Ideally, I would want a designer with basic understanding of HTML and CSS. If they didn’t have this, I would be very clear that their hiring would come with the expectation that they aggressively learn it. I’ve created a tight integration between myself and the developers that I believe is important to extend to any future hires.

What if I could only hire a junior designer?

In that case, I would likely weight my selection heavily towards someone with strong visual design and production skills. Again, willingness to learn both the interaction design process and HTML and CSS production would be necessary. The visual design skills would allow them to immediately take over a lot of my production work, freeing me to design for more projects at once. Over time, I could train them up to become another unicorn like myself.

Okay, since this is all pie in the sky, I’ll throw in a third “what if”. What if I could hire both a senior and junior designer? In that case, I’d want to make sure that the senior designer had strong interaction design skills and process first and foremost. I would again weight the junior designer towards visual design. I would expect both to be willing to learn to code. As the team grows, I would worry less about having all three skill sets in one person, strategizing to balance the skill sets between the team members. What I wouldn’t do is hire a visual designer to just do visual design, an interaction designer to just do interaction design, and a front end developer to just do HTML and CSS.

It all comes back to Jared Spool’s statement:

“Coding and designing are collections of skills. What we’ve learned is teams with a better distribution of skills, not segmented by roles, produce better results.”

Unicorn Quest - Part 3

Josh Seiden’s article, which we worked through yesterday, catalyzed some thoughts for Dave Malouf, currently at Rackspace, who came out guns blazing with a robust, nearly 4,000 word post on his own blog titled Thoughts on code, programming, design, production, development, technology and Oh! Design. There’s a lot of chunky goodness in this stew—much that we agree on and a few opinions that I take issue with. We’re going to savor this one in a few spoonfuls.

Dave kicks things off with this little nugget:

But the question isn’t whether or not designers should know HOW to code, but rather, “Should They Code”. Implicit in this question is that the code they do has a purpose and I think where I disagree most with Josh is the purpose of not the knowledge of technology, but the application of that knowledge to production.

If I read this correctly, Dave is saying that it is important for designers to learn how to code, but they shouldn’t be writing production code. If I were to stop there, well, them’s fightin’ words! But the issue is more complex than that, and Dave does a great job breaking it down.

First, let’s talk about design and designing…
Dave and I are both academics, so one thing we have in common is that we’ve given a lot of thought to “defining the damn thing”, as they say. Dave dances around the definitions here without picking one, and that’s wise, as definition isn’t his point. However, your personal definition(s) of design say quite a lot about your perspective on design issues, such as the relevance of learning to code. So, I will share with you my favorite definition of design to give you some insight to my biases.

Design is the human power to conceive, plan, and realize products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of any individual or collective purpose. - Richard Buchanan

The reason I particularly like this definition is that it includes conception, planning, and realization as equal siblings. The definition doesn’t say that the same person has to do all three to be considered a designer (It’s not the definition of a designer, but the definition of the activity.), nor do I believe that you have to be able to do all three to be a good designer. However, I strongly identify with this tripartite and believe that truly great designers will be capable of doing all three. I strive to be a truly great designer, thus I feel compelled to excel in all three areas. You can agree or disagree with my personal conviction, but now you know where I’m coming from and, rather than taking umbrage at my commentary, can compensate by applying your own lens to my thoughts.

Dave describes five changes that have brought us to the current conditions in which designers are often expected to know how to create production code:

  1. Greater accessibility through tools
  2. Startup culture
  3. Agile/Lean (which is in large part a response to #2)
  4. Maker/DIY culture
  5. Open source

This is very insightful, but I don’t believe it paints the whole picture. I see historical influences at play as well. If you ask an Interaction/UX Designer the history of our field, you will get a different story depending on the background of the person you ask. Dave alludes to this in his earlier listing of focus pairs:

  1. HCI - people & technology
  2. New Media - graphics/interfaces & technology
  3. Information Design/Architecture - graphics/navigation & people

The fact is, Interaction Design grew out of several disciplines at the same time. One of the significant contributors was Graphic/Communication Design, which also happens to be my background. Graphic Design, along with Industrial Design, has a tradition of craft. Graphic Designers don’t just conceive and plan things—they make things. There was no such thing as a Graphic Designer that couldn’t produce their design. Some of the greats were able to produce both 2-D graphic design and 3-D industrial design. To this day, I get dumbfounded reactions from my students when I explain that a large percentage (likely a majority) of Interaction Designers and UX professionals are not visually trained and have to rely on a Graphic Designer to realize their wireframes. I believe that this tradition of craft still has a huge impact on the field, which we see surfacing in “design studio methods”, sketching workshops, discussions of materials and foundations, and yes, the pressure/attraction of learning to code. There is a drive for designers that resonate with this tradition to realize—to produce—what they have conceived and planned.

That is enough for tonight’s post. I’ll continue dissecting Dave’s article tomorrow.

This is another kinetic type piece from my graduate course. The assignment was to communicate the meaning of rhythm using only the word itself. As a percussionist, I interpreted each letter as a physical, percussion instrument and then composed a cadence utilizing them. I actually wrote the piece out in notation and then translated it to the animation in Director’s score.

I was just going back and opening some old files to make sure they were still accessible. I’m especially concerned about my Director files from graduate school. I was able to rescue this gem from Dan Boyarski’s class, Time, Motion, & Communication.

A Well-Designed Life

Eve Faulkes was my undergraduate Graphic Design professor. She’s also the one that invited me to teach, inflaming a passion that is still burning strong some eight years later. She is driven to do work that matters, and she invests herself fully—mind, body, heart, and soul. She has been a mentor and an inspiration. Eve is featured in the latest edition of West Virginia University Magazine, and I’m proud to give her a shout-out here.