In order to sprinkle some star dust into the contents of my book I've been doing a few interviews with various professionals from data visualisation and related fields. These people span the spectrum of industries, backgrounds, roles and perspectives. I gave each interviewee a selection of questions from which to choose six to respond. This latest interview is with Thomas Clever, co-founder of Clever°Franke, a data driven experiences studio based in Utrecht in the Netherlands. Thank you, Thomas!
Q1 | What was your entry point into the field: From what education/career background did you transition into the world of data visualisation / infographics?
A1 | I am educated as a graphic designer. After my Bachelors degree in graphic design, I went on to do a Masters degree in Editorial Design. During this my Masters I was introduced to a wide range of subjects from design, communication, scenario and script writing, image editing, psychology, and data visualisation. I discovered all my interests in subjects such as design, research and technology congregated in this one field: data visualisation. And so it began...
Q2 | How do you mitigate the risk of drifting towards content creep (eg. trying to include more dimensions of a story or analysis than is necessary) and/or feature creep (e.g. too many functions of interactivity)?
A2 | I think this ties into the point above; does the addition of extra data, layers or content contribute to the story and the message? If not, ‘kill your darlings’. I’m always trying to peel away the layers of the union and get to the core. Once that very elementary understanding is there, you can start adding features to enhance it. It’s all about decoding and encoding the message and that looming risk of ‘over doing it’.
Q3 | One of the more elusive terms in visualisation is ‘style’. It is a hard thing to pin down but it is clear that the work of your team does have a recognisable style. From your position at the heart of your team, how do you get the balance between establishing common approaches across a team whilst maintaining the agility to respond to challenges that require unique solutions when they come along?
A3 | I suppose one could say our work has a certain ‘signature’. ‘Style’ - to me - has a negative connotation of ‘slapped on’ to prettify something without much meaning. As a design agency we don’t make it our goal to have a recognisable (visual) signature, instead to create work that truly matters and is unique. Pretty much all our projects are bespoke and have a different end result. That is one of the reasons why we are more concerned with working according to ‘values’ that we defined within our agency. These values transcend individual projects and I believe that is what makes our work recognisable. These values are much more high level; such as wanting to solve complexity, putting the end-user first and being driven by boundless curiosity. This is what I try to instil across the team, whether it be a designer, developer or anyone in our agency.
Q4 | In much of your work you exploit the potential of new media, integrating illustration/photo-imagery alongside visualisation assets - what are some of the practical tips you can pass to people about the challenges of judging what to include and how to go about it?
A4 | In our projects we want to tell a coherent and compelling story. Every project is different and needs a different approach. Although all our projects are very much data driven, visualisation is only part of the products and solutions we create. This day and age provides us with amazing opportunities to combine video, animation, visualisation, sound and interactivity. Why not make full use of this? I’d say aim for the best and don’t try and do everything yourself. We needed aerial photography and time-lapse videos for one of our projects. Instead of thinking this is not achievable, we called around and within a week we had someone running through Chicago creating some amazing footage. Judging whether to include something or not is all about editing and asking if something is really necessary. There is always an aspect of ‘gut feel’ or ‘instinct’ versus continuous doubt that drives me. In the end, it down asking very simple questions. Great solutions come from asking simple questions, but these questions are often hardest to answer.
Q5 | As somebody who works with and coordinates a team of people who are likely to be juggling multiple projects at anyone time, it probably goes without saying that Project Management will be an important activity. Can you share some practical advice about how you integrate project management thinking across what is (in a large part) a creative discipline?
A5 | Get a good project manager, then get another one. A creative process requires time and space to think, away from distractions such as email or phones. Our project managers help our creative team focus on this and take responsibility for everything ‘surrounding’ the project. Juggling more projects at the same time is a matter of clear planning and literally blocking time. Right now we are implementing working in blocks of 2 hours. Each day has three blocks and one block of ‘stretch time’. Everyone can plan a two hour slot. More than that and it becomes daunting. It all comes down to time management. Very little tasks only 5 minutes, but 15 instead. Make this miscalculation a few times a day and you’re working late that night. I reserve timeslots in my calendar to work on seemingly trivial things: writing email (I have time blocked in my calendar each day), following up on a business trip: block half a day for each day you’ve been gone. Working on creative stuff, I plan times that I know I’m at my best (early morning / end of day).
Q6 | You will also play a key role in evaluating work that your team creates. What are some of the key components of assessment you are making when determining if a design is at the right level to be published/launch?
A6 | First of all, we assess if it matches the strategic and guiding principles that we defined at the beginning of the project. These principles are discussed and shared with the client too. It provides all stakeholders with a ‘checklist / toolkit’ that enables us to ‘measure’ the quality of the design. Secondly, we all share the to produce work that is at the forefront of strategy, aesthetics and technology; we don’t aim for anything less. No decision is made arbitrarily; no detail is left to chance. We have a design review with the entire design team every Wednesday morning. We discuss all on-going projects see what we can improve upon. Team members that are not involved in a project can still have a valuable contribution and provide fresh ideas. In principle, this means the design is at the right level long before launch or publication. Of course, sometimes that is not the case and it comes down to killing your darlings, hard work and pulling that infamous all-nighter.
Header image taken from Clever°Franke's work on the Seeing Data 'UK Migration' project.