InForm: Turning Data into Meaning – Adobe Museum of Digital Media

One of the most rewarding things about putting Wired Magazine together each month is executing the basic A+B of magazine making: combining stories with visuals. I’ve long been proud of how Wired takes on some exceedingly complicated topics – from computational biology to artificial intelligence to quantum mechanics – and then elevates these stories with sublime and clarifying design and photography. It’s really only through the combination of words and design that Wired is able to accomplish its mission of delivering ideas to our readers. Without the design, the ideas would be too demanding; without the ideas, the design would be too abstract. And thankfully, we’ve been recognized repeatedly during my 10 years at Wired for our editorial accomplishments, our design successes, and the combination that creates our unique kind of magazine.

At Wired, we love infographics, and we love telling stories with data and numbers. We trust our readers will be able to process complicated information, provided we present it in the clearest possible way. But for nearly all of those 10 years, there’s been one form that we haven’t been able to execute in our pages: fluid data visualization, where data and design not only display information in two dimensions, but move outwards into three or even four-dimensional displays. This is the inherent limitation, after all, of the printed page – which is a beautiful technology for information display, but is static, and locked down.

It’s been somewhat bittersweet for me to witness the flourishing, over the past few years, of data visualization as an art form and a medium for explaining complicated data-driven ideas. There is a new generation of designers who have developed an aptitude not just for graphic design but for computation, creating dynamic, fluid videos or interactive websites that let people go deep into data. The printed page, we’ve found, just can’t capture these visualizations, and so we haven’t put them in the magazine. We have been able to push this over the last year or so with our iPad version of Wired, using Adobe software first developed as it happens, in a Wired/Adobe partnership, but a full-throttled exploration of the power of data visualization has remained on my wishlist.

This is one reason why I was thrilled to be invited to serve as the first curator-in-residence at the Adobe Museum of Digital Media. The folks at Adobe have noticed, as clearly as I have, a flourishing of visualization artists. And now they were offering to let me curate – or what I would call in my day job, “edit” – a collection of examples that demonstrate the power and potential of data visualization.

Truthfully, there is just too much good work out there to call this a complete and definitive exhibition of data-viz. There are too many top-notch designers and too much amazing work. So we quickly identified a conceptual through line that gives a focus to the exhibit, one that I also think underscores the power of digital media (the informing concept, after all, for the Museum itself). Our exhibition would concentrate on data that is drawn out of people’s digital lives, the actions and clicks and tweets that we generate when we sit down at our computers or go out with our GPS-enabled cell phones or send text messages. This digital existence is, for many of us, as real as our analog lives and is the premise behind the exhibition, which we call “InForm.” After all, we all deal with data every day. We quantify our friends on Facebook, track comments on our blogs, and count our Twitter followers. Our every action is logged and cookied and crunched. This world may be invisible, but it is demonstrably real. It is where ideas spread, communities emerge, passions flare, and news travels.

This exhibition in the Adobe Museum of Digital Media celebrates a new generation of visual pioneers – part graphic designers, part statisticians, part artists – who have a facility for turning data into meaning, often with beauty and urgency. In this exhibition, we have asked them to turn their talents to help us see what we do when we log on.

After all, the conversations we have on Facebook can be as meaningful (though different) as those we have face to face. The trips we take on the Web can stimulate new ideas as powerful as those trips we take on an airplane. But unlike traveling to Europe, it’s difficult to see what we do in digital zones.

The pieces in this exhibition, therefore, all attempt to give those interactions and actions a visible form. The pieces all begin with digital data then come to life in some new way. The digital actions represented have been measured and logged, and the artists have crunched that data into something that tells a story. And this story can be remarkably compelling (as in Eric Fischer’s display of tweets after the earthquake in Virginia last month), moving (as in Carolina Andreoli’s catalog of her relationships, online and off), even bemusing (as in Aaron Koblin’s SMS Amsterdam piece – I dare you not to smile as you see what happens at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve).

It’s been a pleasure and an honor to work with Adobe and Goodby, Silverstein this summer in putting together this exhibition. It is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it’s wonderful that the idea finally found its perfect home at the Adobe Museum of Digital Media.