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A Conversation with Information Designer Michael Babwahsingh

Inspired by a Core77 Wiretap that I read back in March, I suggested that my friend Michael Babwahsingh, Information Designer at Humantific, and I record one of our Saturday Skype chats and see if any of it was blog worthy… Here is the result: a long(ish) conversation about design, travel, the human-technology adventure, and much more…

Chris: I was reading your post on information design on the plane back from Europe, and I jotted down some notes, which was such a pain on the iPad, by the way. I had it propped up awkwardly on the tray table, which has a lip on the edge, and I wedged butter packets between the lip and the base of my iPad so I could get a better angle for typing. But anyway, I got it done and saved them in a notes file and kept them to use as a comment later. But what I was interested in was this education piece. When I was at RISD, I had a few friends in Graphic Design that were really interested specifically in information design. What you would do as a senior was come up with a degree project, and you couldn’t just demonstrate the craft, you had to have a point, or a story you wanted to tell. And I think what happens with information design – particularly now that everyone’s so fascinated with infographics – is this idea that if the graphic itself or the design isn’t answering a particular question, it almost becomes irrelevant. It’s like it becomes information junkfood. We see that all the time – you were saying that you cringe when you see the GOOD, um, what do they call that?

Michael: Transparency.

Chris: Yeah, the Transparency. I mean, some of that stuff is visually appealing, but then when you look at it you wonder, why do I need to know this? This isn’t answering a question that was burning in my mind, so why is it here? I think that’s what’s really lacking. So my classmates that were trying to do that would always struggle with the concept. They could execute easily, but then you’d see these irrelevant things like visualizations of someone’s iTunes collection. It would become this self-referential or self-indulgent thing.

Michael: Right. See, to that exactly – you know Feltron right? Nicholas Felton? Case in point: He’s a talented designer, don’t get me wrong, but honestly, I don’t care how many times he went to a bar in New York. For me, personally, I don’t care about that data – he does! He’s sharing his visualization of his data, but I don’t care. It’s not relevant to me. It’s nice to look at, to see how he did it, but beyond that, I’m not going to take action on it. There’s no meaning for me. There’s a story about him, but the story is “this is what Nicholas did one year,” you know, and there’s interesting cross sections within it of what he did, but so what? That’s the question, that “so what?” That’s what bugs me about a lot of info design stuff because I keep saying, “so what?” It looks pretty, but so what? To find really meaningful infographics – any content that’s worth visualizing or telling a story around – that’s the hardest thing. Who’s doing it? Where is it? And who’s upholding that set of standards? You can’t just go around spitting out pie charts without having some purpose behind them. You can exercise craft and proficiency in technical skill, but that’s the end of the story. I want to know the thinking that came before it – how much investigation, how much data, how many iterations were gone through before you said, “Ok, I’m going to do this. This is the story I want to tell.” That’s what I keep thinking about. Who’s doing this? Who’s digging in to it and really thinking about what they do? Who’s committing to it instead of just doing a one-off thing so they can post it to their blog or get it in a magazine? There has to be an engagement and committment to doing it right.

Chris: I completely agree. The thing is, with Felton, one thing that intrigues me about what he’s done is that the annual reports that he creates I think intrigue me on the level of how can you represent a year’s worth of human experience and what datapoints do you choose? Obviously, it’s completely self-involved, but I think what’s interesting is that the last one he did – I think what he did is create a survey that he had people fill out after hanging out with them, which, imagine that–imagine you’re hanging out with a friend and at the end he says, “oh by the way, could you fill out this survey?” It’s the most utterly narcissistic thing you could do. But, I think for him, from what I understand, he’s approaching his own experience really scientifically. But as you say, the “so what?” becomes very relevant to you when you’re looking at it, but not to him. What I’ve noticed is that it seems to me that this whole trend toward valuing self-analysis and self-tracking that’s become very popular is kind of this nascent worldview that elevates supposedly objective data as more relevant than subjective experience. So, if you can find a way to quantify what otherwise would be subjectively remembered, then by this point of view that is going to be a much more reliable way for you to look back retrospectively on your own past than what you remember. I read this book a couple of years ago called The Numerati, which talked about this, how all these different industries are looking more at how strictly they can mechanically evaluate the performance of employees – what they do with their time, what they do on the web – based upon the notion that human perspective on those things is utterly flawed. In other words, if I were to say to you, “Hey Michael, what did you do last week?” you would probably pick out certain things that matter to you, that stand out in your memory, and they might be ten different things from what you might pick out if I asked you the same question tomorrow. In this worldview that seems to be emerging, those subjective responses are irrelevant and we have to strive for this objective, data-driven point of view on the world. But as you pointed out, that whole idea kind of reveals itself as bogus – when what you do is analyze your own trivia, like who I drank beer with and what beer I had, or how many times in a week I washed my hair, that kind of thing, that’s about as subjective as it gets. Those things don’t matter to anyone else. They’re so meaningless that they don’t matter enough to you to remember – that’s why we have to do all these mechanical things to bring that data to light!

Michael: Right. When people choose to make these things, the conscious decisions that go into it are – oh, and I wanted to get to the storytelling thing, because I read your article and I wanted to talk about it a bit – I think every display, every gesture like that is motivated by a story. And the purpose behind it is, most of the time, self motivated and self-referential. And often the only value you can get out of it is to think, “oh that’s cool, maybe I’ll do that.” I can appreciate the personal level of data capture and visalization, but I want it to have some real substance. I want to create things that have meaning, and I want the profession – information design in general – have that value too. To value meaning, and relevance, instead of novelty. To make things that have lasting value instead of just a a throwaway graphic. There’s another guy, I’ll give you this example – you’ve probably seen him in the New York Times – Andrew Kuo, who does those multicolored, kind of 80’s looking color palette things. I saw an exhibit of his stuff, and I was so critical of him. I was just railing against it, like, “this is nonsense! I don’t care how many shows you went to see, and I don’t care about your emotional spectrum during those shows!” But when I saw his exhibit, I thought, “Ok, I get it. I see what this is.” It was more expression – it’s really art. It’s almost a matter of infoviz for art’s sake. It’s pure expression, and creativity in infographic form.

Chris: Maybe this is veering off into territories too spiritual, but, I think as you said, the meaning piece is really essential. If you don’t already have a guiding principle for what life means, then you’re going to be searching for one. I think that this idea, this elevation of “objective” data analysis of the human life is a result of people facing that they can’t come up with their own meaning – they’re saying, “I can’t create my own meaning, because I’m me. If I’m going to mean something, it has to be on the basis of something that transcends me. It has to be something other.” I realize there are going to be plenty of people in disagreement with this, by the way. So, the only way you can go about doing that, I suppose outside the frame of a supernatural worldview, is through this quasi-scientific approach to self-analysis. But this is disappointing to me, and I feel should be to others, too. I’m not going to get any closer to deriving meaning from my life by treating myself like a robot, a data source. Now, if you had a robot, you might be interested in using it as a data collector through its experience of the world, so you’d send it out. Someone did this, by the way. Someone sent out this very simple robot that only did one thing: move forward. They sent it out in New York City, this simple little box with wheels and a flag on it, with, I think, very simple instructions showing where the robot was sent to go. They wanted to see who would actually help it out if it ran into something or tipped over and couldn’t continue forward. So the robot became this sensor for the physical world and the choices of onlookers it encountered on it’s essentially binary – go or stop – journey. That’s kind of interesting, because the robot was able to deliver a way of articulating how others – real people – interacted with it, perhaps how they reacted to the unexpected, or how they were or were not willing to aid or collaborate with an experiment of someone else’s. But to put a human in the place of the robot, to find meaning no less, kind of undermines the entire search for meaning itself.

Michael: Yeah, totally! I feel like what’s difficult here is that there is so much subjectivity around these issues, and for me, the tension, at a meta-level is that no one can really say what is the right or wrong way to define meaning, or how meaning should be communicated to others. If I frame it in a professional context, if I really try to encapsulate it in a tactical sense, I think I can easily make my point. But in this broader sense – collectively, how do people express their nature and do what they need to do and record that experience – that’s sort of off limits. The best I can do is offer my opinion and I don’t think I’m going to change many peoples’ perspectives on it. I have strong views on this, as you do, and it’s tough to say to people, you know, “why are you doing this?” It’s really at a point where it’s a stalemate – I can present ideas and opinions, but I can make much more of a case by tying it to a professional practice, like information design, than lifestyle and a personal source of meaning.

Chris: Back to the story point, the whole notion of what Nick Felton does, or any information designer, for that matter, ought to begin with something like, “Hmm, I’m observing something and I don’t know why it is. So, let me dig in to it and analyze whatever I can to help bring the story to light.” If everyday you woke up at 3am, on the dot, to a mechanical whirring sound for five minutes, and then it stopped and you eventually fell back asleep, and this had been happening for weeks, you’d be motivated to figure out what was going on. You’re observing – experiencing, really – this mystery, and you’d surely do something to figure it out. Maybe the next night, you’d sleep in a different place and see if it still happened. Maybe you’d set your alarm clock for 2:55 to see if the whirring sound was already going before you normally woke up. Whatever the case may be, you’d make changes to your behavior in order to get in a position to observe what was going on. If you were able to gather some data, visualizing it might help to illuminate the story, or at least the patterns at play. Maybe you’d find that it wasn’t happening every day, or that it wasn’t happening when you slept on the couch, or that the sound was coming from the apartment next door. Hopefully, you’d get closer to an answer. That’s why I’d love to see someone like Felton – I understand he’s a teacher – hired by a company who says, “Hey, look, we’re noticing some inefficiencies, some drops in revenue, some increases in expenses, and we want to know if there are ways we could improve the way we handle resource control between our warehouses and retail stores. Could you take a look at this – here’s access to sales and inventory data, talk to these people, do what you need to do and let us know what you find.” I’m sure he could find any number of ways to creatively gather data or draw connections between the data provided to him, and then use his craft to tell the story that emerges. That would be far more interesting to me – and useful, for that matter – than a self-administered annual report of one man’s experience.

Michael: Right, and that answers the question of “So what?” There’s some relevance, some purpose to it, to more people other than himself. Yes, I think it’s about that skill, how you look at the world, and where you focus it. Where do you point that lens? Inward, or do you point it outward? With the things I do everyday, that is the challenge. When you’re faced with someone else’s problem, like figuring out a communication issue between two teams – getting sales and marketing to work together – or, management has a new initiative and how should it be communicated to people, that same lens that I could use to look at my own data I could use for others. I could bring value with these skills to someone else. That’s something I try to think about in my work. Um, oh, this is veering off topic, but I wanted to ask you about your trip to Europe…

Chris: There were so many things about my time in Paris that were fascinating to me. For instance, one of the first things I noticed after I arrived was that, compared to what I see here in the US, nobody seemed to be walking around on the streets staring downward, transfixed by their phone – you know, staring at it constantly, texting, bumping in to each other on the sidewalk because they’re not looking forward. I was surprised by that because I figured that this trend – this way of interacting, nor non-interacting with the world – was spreading. But I didn’t see much of that, and I’m not sure why. I know they have smart-phones over there. You see people use them on the subway. But it’s not as much of a focus, it seems, in public places.

Michael: Yeah, culturally, it’s not really enmeshed as much as it is here.

Chris: But I also wondered if it was because the Parisians already had their hands full, you know, with a lit cigarette.

Michael: …laughter…

Chris: Well, that’s another fascinating thing about Paris that I noticed! So many people smoke, it’s unbelievable!

Michael: Throughout Europe, actually. It gets worse the closer you get to the Mediterranean.

Chris: Really?

Michael: The further south you go, the more people smoke. Children smoke! But Paris is amazing. I love Paris. The first time I went, it was the worst way to do Paris. It was one day. We took the Eurostar from London to Paris and just blitzed the town. We were just hailing cabs, you know, “Let’s go to the Louvre! Let’s go to the Arc de Triophe! Let’s go to the Bastille!” Just zipping around, it was stupid, so stupid. The second time, I was a little smarter. I just said, “I want to spend my time here…at the Louvre. I want to absorb it, walk through it and get to know it.” That was a little better. I love old cities and seeing how they evolve – how generations have adapted and transformed it, how new architecture fits in with the existing layout of the city. I love the tiny little alleys, the strange stuff. You can’t get that in many places in the states.

Chris: I thought it was such a beautiful place. I loved the architecture there. I loved the restraint in Paris. Paris seemed much different than London in that a lot of old Paris has remained the same. There doesn’t seem to have been much new construction or revision of the city plan, whereas in London, all you have to do is walk a few blocks to see a cross-section of architectural history. If you’re standing at Parliament and look across the Thames, there’s a building from mid-twentieth century, a building from the 80’s, a building from the 90’s, and a building that was just recently built, and you’re standing by Parliament, which is hundreds of years old. It’s fascinating.

Michael: Right, and then you’ve got that giant wheel, The Eye!

Chris: It’s almost as if you were to look at the city as someone’s project, Paris seems to still have a unified point of view, whereas London doesn’t. London seems to be a much more organic, out of control mishmash of styles.

Michael: Yeah, totally.

Chris: In a way, it seems less tasteful, but at the same time, maybe it’s more real, more human. Maybe they’re just letting be what will be? I don’t know.

Michael: Did you go anywhere else, or just London and Paris?

Chris: Just London and Paris. In Paris, we went to the Louvre, which was intense, of course. We went to the Musee d’Orsay, Versailles, the maritime museum, saw the Arc de Triomphe and walked the Champs-Élysées – even saw that stamp market from the movie Charade – we walked the Latin Quarter quite a bit, because that’s where we stayed. We saw many of the beautiful churches – Notre Dame, and…

Michael: Oh, did you visit Sacré Cœur and walk up Montmartre?

Chris: Yes, we did. I really enjoyed seeing those. Sacré Cœur is amazing because that hill is just covered with crazy lascivious behavior – people are boozing, going nuts, but when you enter in the church, you’re not even allowed to speak, and they have a 24 hour prayer thing going on. It’s like night and day, when you step in or out of that church. There’ll be some drunk guy leaning up against the church, playing guitar amidst broken bottles and trash, but inside is this other world.

Michael: Yeah, there was one time I was there – they say that evening is the best time to visit so you can see the city of lights from the hill- there were nuns chanting in the church. There was a mood there, in the darkness, a presence that I think you can only get there. That was one of the most memorable things for me.

Chris: Did you visit Sainte Chapelle?

Michael: No, I didn’t go there.

Chris: Sainte Chapelle is a little chapel that, in order to get to it you have to go through the security for the royal palace built around it, which takes a while. But once you get through, you can enter the chapel, which is actually quite small compared to these other places. It has these incredible vaulted ceilings that have been painted like the night sky – this wonderful deep blue and this ornate pattern of gold stars – it’s just sweet. But then you can go up this tight spiral staircase to get to the main space of the chapel, which is no longer than the space you were just in but is much, much taller. At the end of the room is a rose window, a stained glass window like Notre Dame’s, but smaller, but the sides are just wall-to-wall stained glass windows that have to be at least 20-25 feet high each. They depict, from Genesis to Revelation, the entire story of the Bible. But they’re so brightly illuminated by the sun that it almost looks digital. You can tell it’s stained glass because of the mark, you know, the way that shards of glass are assembled to create the image, but the light that so brightly illuminates the windows almost blurs the edges between each shard of glass enough to make it seem – I guess to the modern viewer, anyway – like a projected image! I’ve never seen anything like it. But when sun is coming through one side of the room, it passes through the stained glass on that side, illuminating them and creating this incredible picture, but then illuminates the inside of the facing wall’s stained glass windows, revealing how dusty and imperfect they are. You can see the inside, how the grout holds the glass together, how dirty they are, and how imperfect the image is without the sun passing through the glass just right. But once the sun passes through them from the outside in, they become this other thing. They just transform completely, from something where the hand of the makers is immediately perceivable to where the image itself just dominates.

Michael: Wow, what an amazing experience, just to see that! The whole topic of iconography, religious art, depictions of history – that’s something I could dive into quite deeply. I’m very fond of iconography, particularly Byzantine iconography. I made a trip to Mount Athalos – I might have mentioned this to you – where I wanted to see devotional art in person. When you’re actually there, it’s an entirely different experience than seeing it in a lecture in slide format, or in a book. When you see it, when you actually experience it, it’s just something else. Just the thought that went in to that kind of work – people thought about the devotional space, “What is this space for? What do I need to do to amplify the meaning of this space? What are the stories that should be told within this space? How do I guide people through it?” I’d love to take a year and just study that. It’s that amazing to me.

Chris: And what’s amazing, too, is that if you really explain what is happening with these places, whether it’s Notre Dame or Sainte Chapelle – these spaces are meant for worship, but they’re crafted in a way that is meant to engage with the senses so that you can be more immersed in this transcendent experience. So you’re in Sainte Chapelle and the intention is to interface with God, and yet humans have created all these images that tell the story of the faith so that you can be immersed in that grand story, so to speak. So, standing in that space, you, this little person, are dwarfed by these massive windows telling an epic story that surround you. You’re just a little bit in this interactive experience. Now today, if you were to walk into – let’s say someone built a church, and rather than stained glass windows, they used holographic projections, digital sound, and the like, people might immediately reject it or feel that it was profane in some way. But it’s doing the exact same thing as what’s happening at Sainte Chapelle, only we’re using the tools of today, rather than the tools of the Byzantine era. What they had to create an immersive sensory experience were basic materials – stone, glass, wood and iron – and they said, “Let’s create a space big enough to show the smallness of man, let’s use the sun, let’s fill it with organ music that can shake a person, let’s fill it with incense, let’s do anything we can to transform the everyday experience into something bigger, something more.”

Michael: Right, and that was state-of-the-art! The height of technology then.

Chris: Exactly! But isn’t that interesting – it’s almost as if when it comes to engaging with spirituality, we’ve gotten to a point of technical facility that we’re uncomfortable with really merging the two. Why is it that I can stand in Notre Dame, and feel a profound sense of awe, not just at the building itself, but at my own smallness – which is what these buildings were intended for, to demonstrate the smallness of man and the grandeur of God – but if I look around and see all the other visitors with their tiny cameras – the presence of modern technology – it feel embarrassing or out of place. I mean, I’m uncomfortable with it. It’s anachronistic – not that the “oldness” of Notre Dame is out of place in the modern world, but that our digital cameras are out of place in Notre Dame!

Michael: Well, you see, to that exactly, what’s funny is we’re trying to take that grandeur, that epic scale, and reduce it. When you get back to our friends here, our mobile devices, we’re taking that experience and compressing it – making it smaller and smaller, pocket-sized! In a way, psychologically, it’s diminishing the real value or power of what spirituality really is. There are ways to compensate for time and distance, but you can’t really compensate for experience – visceral or tactile experience. When you mention the people with their cameras, I think, “Yeah, you’re not really going to take that experience back with you.”

Chris: This experience – sitting in a massive space designed and constructed by humans, under the light passing through incredibly detailed pictorial windows made by humans, hearing music written and played by humans, and smelling incense burned by humans – is an entirely synthetic experience! It’s not organic. That would never just happen on its own. Sure, we’re using natural elements – sunlight, stone, air, etc. – but the experience we’re creating is designed and synthetic. Yet there’s something about that way of doing it that seems more appropriate to the working out of spirituality than if you were to walk in a room and instead of stained glass you had digital projection, or instead of an organ you had someone’s ipod playing through speakers. Somehow that would be too synthetic. But, really, if you look at it objectively, it’s no more synthetic than the Notre Dame experience.

Michael: Right, it’s the next generation. Notre Dame was the first generation of that experience. Actually, no, the first generation was people sitting around a campfire.

Chris: Or cave paintings.

Michael: Exactly, so there’s several generations forward. And since we’ve had rococo, with these very elaborate sculptures. At what point do you say it’s too synthetic? Where do you say that these projections – or holograms, or whatever – that that’s not real experience? That it’s something so far removed from humanity as to be profane or blasphemy?

Chris: Well, I wonder if it has to do with symbolism. A painting is only so immersive, right? No matter how big it is, it’s still a two-dimensional surface, and you can get close enough to see the mark of the paint and the tooth of the canvas – you’re instantly acquainted with the limits of the medium. In a church, it’s the same thing. You know that the stained glass window is going to “turn off” at some point. As soon as the sun sets, the experience is gone. As soon as the incense burns out, the experience is gone. All of those things are symbols that engage first the senses and then the mind. When you look at the stained glass window, it doesn’t change. It’s static – the same picture forever – like a painting, and it engages like a symbol in your mind, triggering your knowledge of the story, your sense of how you fit within it, your current feelings about who you are and your place in the world. It’s the catalyst for that kind of process. But if you’re in a space filled with holographic imagery or some kind of computer generated reality, it plays a trick on the mind – as if you’re actually there, that it’s more than just symbols. I think that some people may be ok with that, but others, like me, aren’t. They don’t like that aspect of deception. So, I think there is a line, that when it comes to how you practice spirituality, some people are hesitant to engage with modern technology because they want to avoid the deception, because the essence of spiritual practice is to get to the truth.

Michael: From another angle, there’s the split between East and West. West is all about constructing, building, making, forming experiences, whereas the East is more subtractive or minimal. It’s not about building an environment, you’re working inward. You’re not relying so much upon artifice or man-made stuff. It’s quite the opposite. You’re trying to detach from that because it’s material. You want to create an experience that’s more about inner exploration – finding the inner sanctuary, which is boundless. You construct it. Believe me, I can bore you with that. I’m immersed in it. That whole idea of inner spirituality and how it’s manifest – how symbolism is used as a springboard to visualize the experience. That’s the other part I find fascinating – where you use these external stimulants to construct something internally. You’re imagination is the cathedral. It’s a much more limitless experience.

Chris: Yes, the mind is clearly a frontier of its own. We try to craft things to engage with the mind, but we’re only scratching the surface of what it has to offer. In fact, I think there’s probably an instinctual terror that people have at the idea of diving fully in. The last time we spoke, we discussed Carl Jung’s red book a little bit, right? That’s essentially what he was trying to do. He was trying to find any way he could – to the point of drug induced visions – to explore the mind. As an artifact, this book he created documenting that process is just unbelievable. That’s why I think people are so intrigued by it, because he went so much further than the average person would be comfortable going.

Michael: The amazing thing with that – when I actually looked at the book in person – was realizing that we’ll never know how vivid those colors were. We’ll never know those fantastic creatures he saw. That was unique to him. The best he could do was paint it or write it in this giant red book. What existed in his mind is locked away forever. The best we can get of his experience is the red book – these paintings, his record of it. Next time you’re in town, aside from us meeting, you should go to the Ruben. I’m evangelizing this place to everyone I know – “Go to the Ruben! I’m writing about it!” That museum does the best job, I think, of marrying those two ideas: What do we, in the present day, understand about what we can do and who we are? What is the psychology of being? What is consciousness? How does it connect to spiritual expression? But, specifically in the Himalayas – they’re looking specifically at Tibetan and Buddhist type stuff. But the way they curate their exhibits – the connections, the synthesis they draw there – it inevitably leads to those conclusions – that there are things we’re figuring out now, but that we’d already known long ago. So how do we make that connection back to the past? I think they understood things – sophisticated things – not just about how the brain works, but also how the psyche works, and how to explore different areas of consciousness. That’s fascinating!

Chris: It is incredible. It’s amazing what the mind is capable of if you restrict it from other things. Imagine Carl Jung – not that long ago – who didn’t have the internet or television to distract him every night. Today, it’s even harder for the average person to imagine what it would be like to go on that kind of journey, because “When am I going to do that? Tonight I’m watching Lost!” or “Yeah, I’m going to set aside some time to completely unplug and be alone, but first I need to check my email…” and then all of the sudden your vision quest is gone because you’ve been distracted by the internet. Oh, one other point I wanted to make about our tendency to try to capture grand experiences and squeeze them into little synthetic boxes, like our digital cameras. When I was at the Louvre, I was shocked by the amount of people pushing to see the Mona Lisa. I waited for about 15 minutes just to slowly make my way to the front of the crowd to see this painting.

Michael: You actually waited?

Chris: I did. Meanwhile, I did take a picture, when I was way back just to show people how crazy this was. But then I put my camera away, because I wanted to be able to just look at it when my turn came. So I finally got up there, and I’d only been there about 5 seconds – and actually, it was worth the wait, it’s a mysterious and beautiful painting – before this arm reaches out from behind me and then in front of my face, holding a digital camera and snapped a photo. I mean, completely blocking my view! This person invaded my moment of technology-free observance of this incredible historical artifact to add to her JPG collection! It was hilarious. I had a few other experiences like that. It’s almost as if we’ve turned the museum experience into a scavenger hunt – collecting things, collecting photographs but not actually experiencing it. If there was one thing that left the strongest impression during my trip to Europe, it was that – that there were people there experiencing Europe, and others who were collecting Europe.

Michael: That’s true even in New York – I see it all the time. It’s a process of collecting. Find and collect, almost as if you’re looking at a map, find where to go next, take a picture. It’s not about really observing. With museums, which are really a repository of collections, its people saying, “I want that collection in my collection.” You need more time to really experience something than the time it takes to capture it with your camera.

Chris: This is something I’ve appreciated about the way you do blogging – and I know you’ve said it’s because you don’t have the time to write as much as you’d like. But I like the gaps in between your posts. To me, when you’ve written a post, it’s clear that, since the last one, you’ve really been observing and considering. You take the time to really think through the stuff that matters to you, such that when you actually write, it’s quite unique, thoughtful, and considered. Imagine if you were to set a new rule to post every day? Eventually, those posts would be completely meaningless. You’d be so busy writing for your blog that you wouldn’t have any time to actually experience anything worth writing about. And then it would become a matter of. “What can I take a picture of to post to my blog?” All of the sudden, your experience becomes gathering to synthesize an experience, not a real one. That’s a major criticism I have of web culture – whatever that means – today. People want to demonstrate their lives online, but the way they go about it is unauthentic – contrived for the web.

Michael: It’s motivated by the blog, or by the need to put something there. I’ve mentioned this, but I always appreciate that you notice. I think you’re the only person that gets it! I really appreciate that you know what I’m doing. But I do struggle with it sometimes, because I want to be more prolific. I want to write more, and polish my writing, too. It’s just a question of time. It’s about finding time to reflect. I know you have a method – keeping a running list of ideas, which I’m trying to do. But it is difficult. I think there are varying ideas about what is acceptable blog content. I’m trying to keep to what I think is a higher standard, being aware that I’m adding to the “public record.” It’s a worldwide thing. It’s not so intimate. It’s going to outlive me. So, it’s a record of human experience that shouldn’t be so disposable. You’re very conscientious about what you write, going to that higher level of analysis, that long-form thinking that is lacking on the web. I aspire to that. I want to mirror the process you’ve chosen – choosing a topic, really considering it, exploring all the angles that matter. What happens, as a result, is a great conversation that follows. The human enslavement to technology piece – that was a great example. There was a lot of substance even in a little bit of writing, that it was inevitable that so many people would want to contribute to the conversation around it. People could see that there was something there.

Chris: You know, the other day, I put up a post about how information is communicated and preserved by technology, and I was reflecting on how some of the things that I saw at the British Museum reflected that…

Michael: Yeah, I read that.

Chris: Oh, great. Well, so, someone posted a comment to the article that said, “How is this relevant to your company? Why did you post this?” That initially rubbed me the wrong way, and I had to take a bit before responding to it so that I would do so kindly. But posts like that one or the human enslavement to technology article that you mentioned, posts that seem contradictory to what a company like Newfangled does are, in my opinion, essential. If we can be healthily critical of the way that we use or think about technology, then I think we’ll end up doing better things with it. I sincerely think that it will benefit humanity. It’s a value of mine that I not only paint a nuanced picture of myself as someone who works at a technology company, but that I actually be that way – that, rather than being a gadget fanboy, I want people to see that we’re not just about technology for technology’s sake. We’re humans creating technology, for better or worse. Sometimes we live contrary to our humanity, and sometimes the things that seem contrary are actually essential to our humanity. If we can navigate that fuzzy line, things will be better for us.

Michael: Yeah, that’s evident in the mixture of responses you tend to get. Like the guy who criticized you for your purchase of the iPad. Missing the point entirely! It’s inevitable that there will be a range of response – some will see the thinking, the grappling with these issues, and others will just see the stuff, the devices you might mention, the sites, web marketing, whatever. But the nuances matter. What will our interactions look like ten years from now. Stretching the scope of what people see instead of just the here and now. There’s more to that top line. There’s value to that, that you’re bringing to Newfangled. I haven’t seen that with many other companies. It’s a differentiator. It’s a unique point of view that other companies don’t have. Most web companies are about doing it better, faster, cheaper.

Chris: Well, I know we’ve covered a lot. But I wanted to get a chance to ask you to tell me about a project you’ve done recently that represents your point of view on what information design is all about.

Michael: Good question. Let’s see. There are several examples. The best example I could give you right now is something I’m in the thick of right now – Measure of America, the human development report. We worked on it in 2008. In a nutshell, it was taking something new and unfamiliar – human development – and bringing it to an audience that knows nothing about it- the American audience. The goal audience, especially developing countries, is well aware of human development and development concepts. Not in the US. The US knows GDP, but not human development. So that was challenge #1. How do we introduce this concept? The other challenge was how to take human development content, which is very data driven, very dry, sanitized, depicted in a very boring way, and make the data come alive and tell a story. Without, by the way, sugar coating it or wrapping it in some cool design treatment. We wanted to take this information and elevate it to being interesting and meaningful and engaging – something you’d want to pick up and read. The project was such a challenge to me personally, because everything about it was new. Book design – I’d never done a book. I had to quickly learn book design. Human development – I had to quickly learn that. Client engagement – had to learn that. Project management, too, and I had to sustain if over a long period of time. There were so many dimensions to it. But the result was worth it. It was one of the largest publicly-facing projects I’ve worked on. You can buy it on Amazon. You can go to the bookstore and buy it. Until then, everything I’d done was internally driven – communication between departments or to management. But this was going out to the world. It was the most grueling but also most satisfying of Information Design projects I’ve done. I’ll send you a copy! If you send me your mailing address, I’ll mail you a copy.

Chris: Ok, I’ll do that. The thing I like about your example is what you were saying about how people in the US don’t know what human development is. So, you have this education focus. Information design is such an important educational tool.

Michael: Yes.

Chris: Often, people can understand a concept more easily if they can see a picture that tells a story. Sometimes you need a synthesis of words and images. But that’s such a great way of going about information design, being motivated by education. That’s one of the reasons I got involved in design in the first place. As a kid, I remember being fascinated by textbooks – how the text and image interacted, how you could just glance at a page spread and quickly get a sense of what was being discussed.

Michael: I know what you mean. My mother – or maybe it was my father – had bought me a book about the solar system, which had all these richly illustrated diagrams of space, articulating all kinds of things like gravitational forces, the axis of our planet, etc. I loved how all of that was visually represented. But it never really became my calling until college, when I thought, “Oh, I get it. I see how you can do this.” There are different things along the way, like education, textbooks or intentional efforts to communicate information, that were influential and eye-opening to me. I was always interested in art, but design became, sort of a turning point, where I realized that there was a convergence of interest for me – the analytical side, the technical side, and the artistic side, where I could explore and do things that were loose and unstructured. But all of that together was where I could do something.

Chris: Well, we’ve covered a lot today – from information design to storytelling to spirituality to grappling with technology and back again. I think that’s the essence of my experience with the world – grappling with technology – the seduction of it and the repulsion of it and back and forth. I’m trying to find the right calibration, though sometimes it seems impossible.

Michael: That’s really it, but there’s no easy answer there either. It’s here to stay, we can’t get rid of it. We can try to be ascetics or hermits, but it’s impossible. You can’t live in this society without embracing it to some degree or at least accept it. We’re grappling with emotional, technical, commercial entities that all compete. When I read your article on storytelling, I thought, “It’s not a new problem, it’s just a new form of the problem.” There have always been new technologies competing for our attention. And all of them faced initially strong criticism. The incandescent bulb. The telephone. Television. All of them became options to people and the question was whether they help you or not.

Chris: It is a matter of choice. Human beings have historically made choices as to which paths of progress they’ll follow. You know, the Mennonites and the Amish drew a line that they wouldn’t cross. People do this today – people who will only buy, sell and eat local products, or people who don’t watch television, or people who stay away from social media. People are constantly drawing lines because it’s important to them to be able to define the parameters around which they experience the world. When you’re inundated with choices, you have to start accepting some and ruling others out. Speaking of which, we should probably choose to draw this to a close, otherwise we could go on all day!

Michael: This has been fun.

Chris: It really has. I’m already looking forward to our next conversation!

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