San Francisco (Gestalten 2008)

What would tell you more about a city? A geographic map that identifies the buildings, roads, rivers and so on? Or one that gauges how people feel about the city by recording their emotional responses as they move around it?

No contest. The second map would say much, much more about what it’s like to be there, which is why the British designer, Christian Nold, has devised a series of Emotion Maps of San Francisco, Paris and other cities. For the San Francisco version, he combined the finger cuff sensors used in police polygraph tests with a global positioning system to monitor the instinctive responses of 98 people as they walked around the Mission District. His guinea pigs then explained why they’d felt happy, sad, angry or whatever in various places, and if their reaction was triggered by something they’d just seen, or memories of past experiences.

Nold’s Emotion Maps are examples of the design process known as visualization, which uses advanced software to illustrate complicated data so that we (that’s the 99.99 percent of us without doctorates in applied mathematics) can understand it. Visualization comes in the form of still images, moving ones and three-dimensional models that depict elusive, often abstract phenomena such as the movement of Internet traffic, scientific theories or a city’s emotional landscape. If you spot an elaborate information graphic in a newspaper or magazine, that may well be an example of visualization too. At a time when we are bombarded with more and more information of increasing complexity, visualization, or “viz” as it’s called for short, is fast becoming one of the most exciting areas of design.

Visualization was a key theme of Design and the Elastic Mind, the landmark exhibition on the relationship of design with science and technology held earlier this year at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It is also featured in “Data Flow,” a new book published by Gestalten, and the “Native Land, Stop Eject” show now on at Fondation Cartier in Paris. In that exhibition, the philosopher Paul Virilio and the filmmaker Raymond Depardon explore the tragedy of enforced emigration. They collaborated with a team of visualizers led by the U.S. architecture group, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, to create stunning visual analyses of its causes and impact on different communities

There’s one simple reason why visualization is becoming so important, and that’s our desire to understand what’s happening in the world at a time when it’s becoming harder and harder to do so. “Design always moves where it is needed most,” said Paola Antonelli, curator of Design and the Elastic Mind, who is now working on a major visualization project. “The surge in computing power has generated a surge in information output, and heated up interest in visualization design.”


Alice Rawsthorn
International Herald Tribune