Obviously, the idea of “flow” is crucial to your creativity, seeing as how you named your pre-Google joint venture “Flowing Media, Inc.” And the word “flow” appears in the titles of several of your works, such as TimeFlow (2010), Flickr Flow (2009) and history flow (2003). Why did you choose the word “flow” for all of these projects? Is there something about that word that seems especially apt for data visualization?
Flow has always been a thematic word for us. Our very first project was called history flow, to convey the fact that it visualized evolution over time. We’ve always had a special fondness for that project, and perhaps because of that, the word “flow” has become kind of a talisman in our work. Flow also implies an awareness of history, as well as future directions.
Many of your other projects focus on data compiled from human-created sources and surveys, such as Flickr Flow and Luscious (2010). But the subject of Wind Map is data about a naturally occurring flowing movement—wind across the U.S. What made you decide to focus on wind as a subject?
It was our own very human shivers during the cold, windy winter of 2012.
And how did you come around to deciding the overall look of the piece, i.e. why black and white and not, say, blue or purple? How do the aesthetics of the work play into your design decisions? And why not add Hawaii and Alaska?
We tried many different visualization techniques, some dreadfully colorful. Although the current version might seem simple, spare, or even obvious, it took us a long time to arrive there. In the end we decided to keep a pure grayscale palette to emphasize the texture and movement of the wind.
We didn’t include Alaska and Hawaii for some minor technical reasons… Hopefully someday in the future!
How important was the idea that Wind Map be consistently pulling from current data?
We think it helps the piece enormously. Historical snapshots are interesting, of course, but there’s no substitute for seeing what is happening right now. The proof, for us, is that we keep checking it ourselves.
Is there an edge that you have to balance between data visualization and creative interpretation that verges more towards expression than conveying information? Do you think you’d ever feel comfortable playing around with that line or slipping over it for a personal project?
We don’t always stick to data visualization. One of our pieces, Luscious, is much more guided by aesthetics than data, for instance. But part of what we seek to elicit in viewers is the “joy of revelation,” and clarity helps that kind of magic happen.
I wondered if you might talk about your creative process as an artistic team and if you ever find yourself in a state of creative flow together or separately? When/if that does happen, does it occur at various stages throughout the making of a work?
We definitely go into states of flow, at every stage. We often start with a wide-ranging conversation about a topic, and then move to finding data and playing with ways to represent it. We know we finally have something when we can’t stop playing with it–and that might be the closest thing for us to a feeling of flow.
Experience the Wind Map
HINT.FM is a collaboration between Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, who currently lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Before joining Google, the two founded Flowing Media, Inc., a visualization studio focused on media and consumer-oriented projects. Prior to Flowing Media, they led IBM’s Visual Communication Lab, where they created the ground-breaking public visualization platform Many Eyes. The two became a team in 2003 when they decided to visualize Wikipedia, leading to the “history flow” project that revealed the self-healing nature of the online encyclopedia.
Viégas (Brazilian, born 1971) is known for her pioneering work on depicting chat histories and email. The visualizations of the stock market and baby names created by Wattenberg’s (American, born 1970) are considered Internet classics. Viégas and Wattenberg are also known for their visualization-based artwork, which has been exhibited in venues such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, London Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Read more about HINT.FM
Read more about Viégas and her work
Read more about Wattenberg and his work