Q&A with Moritz Stefaner

Q&A with Moritz Stefaner

Welcome to our ongoing Q&A series, where we're introducing you to some of the designers behind the work you see at Visualizing.org. Please weigh in with comments or additional questions below!

This week, we chat with German freelance designer Moritz Stefaner, whose fusion of aesthetics and analysis in mapping complex systems quite frankly blows us away. And we're not the only ones: Moritz has been nominated for the Design Award of the Federal Republic of Germany and he's exhibited at SIGGRAPH and ars electronica. With a bachelor's in Cognitive Science and a master's in Interface Design, Moritz describes his work as being "at the crossroads of data visualization, information aesthetics, and user interface design." He's a consummate communicator too, blogging at both well-formed data and infosthetics. As he prepares for the upcoming EYEO Festival, Moritz took a moment to chat with us about "Gödel, Escher, Bach," getting physical with data viz, and the excitement of doing design "the wrong way."

A sample of Moritz's work:

V: How and when did you get started in data visualization?

I always had a knack for design, and structures, and numbers. I read "Gödel, Escher, Bach" when I was 18 and it pretty much blew my mind, so you could say that laid the foundation for my later interests in the beauty of data and code. The first real data visualization I produced was probably the "Organic Link Network", which I coded in 2002 as a sort of gimmicky addition to my web site at that time. But then it took until 2005, when I did my B.Sc. Thesis in Cognitive Science about mapping document spaces, and when we built a haptic compass in form of a belt, that I ultimately got fascinated with the field and its potential and realized this was the one thing I wanted to pursue further.


V: Tell us about a data viz project you’re especially proud of.

It is always the current and next projects that I am mainly interested in, and I don't look back that much. If I had to pick a current favorite, I would go for notabilia, because the tree metaphor works really well both on an analytical as well as an evocative level, and I made some good decisions when it came to selecting the data. I could have worked with time, user IDs, the full set of 200'000 discussion, etc. which I usually love - rich and deep information, but in this I resisted the temptation and am very happy with finally presenting only a selection of the 100 longest discussions, and only the sequence of votes. I find data selection and "framing" the most underestimated factor in visualization - easily overlooked, but a very important design aspect that can make or break a visualization.

A second, but not yet published project for the OECD I am quite proud of, is a new index for comparing countries beyond traditional measures like GDP and the like. I believe we managed to create a fairly distinct and beautiful, but also quite effective visualization, but I am much looking forward to the experts' verdict when we launch in a few weeks. It might be a bit borderline for the purists.

V: What’s the most exciting development that’s happened in the field in the past year?

To me, the most exciting thing is that so many people are doing it the "wrong way." There is quite some criticism from the traditional school of information visualization and information graphics for the some of the works coming from newcomers in the field and I love it. Why? It means the field is being extended beyond its comfort zone, and just shows how rich and diverse the field has become in so few years. If Stephen Few criticizes David McCandless graphics for using circles instead of bars, he is right from a technical point of view, but missing the much bigger picture: that information visualization has become a medium, a mode of expression open to everyone, and that people use it to answer, or ask, very interesting questions beyond the traditional scope of scientific research and Business Intelligence tools. When we talk about the design of a visualization, we actually have to consider the whole process from acquiring, parsing, mining data over the visual representation and interaction design to the surrounding cultural context and conversation.

V: Where do you see data visualization heading in the next couple of years?

There is much exciting work going on at the border of generative design and information visualization (for e.g. Nike + Paint With Your Feet), the extension of infovis practices to physical sculptures (be it with handmade approaches, or industrial techniques, mixing photography and visualization, mapping personal spaces (like Feltron's annual reports) etc. I am sure we will see many surprising uses of information visualization in the next few years. At the same time, I predict a certain fatigue with flashy, but pointless or imprecise data displays, which I personally can feel already. Adopting the superficial features of great information designs is not enough - you have to adopt the investigative attitude behind the graphics to create great works yourself.

V: What's one visualization or data set you’ve always wanted to tackle but haven’t yet had the time?

Speaking of self monitoring, I do have a huge pile of hourly web cam snapshots, taken automatically over the last few years. I did some first simple interface for analysing the data, and cross-correlating it with other digital output, but have not really come around to work more on analyzing and mapping and reflecting on the images. Maybe, I am not that interested in myself, or - more probably - I am simply a bit afraid of the outcome, because, in fact, I do spend a lot of time grimly looking at my computer screen :) But I am sure I will find good use for the data one day, so I just keep collecting it.

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