Stamen Design and the “Hippie Geeks” of Data Visualization

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widening the scope of their work with clients to include spinoff products that could serve large markets. For example, a company that serves the needs of people with diabetes might collaborate on an app that makes sticking to a treatment regimen “as compelling as a video game” for the patient, Christensen says. No surprise: there’s a public benefit theme in both the apps he mentioned.

When corporate clients want to attract data visualization specialists with a mastery of technical skills, artistry, and narrative, they may need to comprehend the mission-driven culture of creative workers that Cami affectionately calls “hippie geeks,” who are often more drawn to non-profit clients.

“A lot of charities give you greater creative opportunities than many commercial businesses do,” Cami says.

Some of the largest in-house data visualization teams work for news media organizations such as the New York Times, so their designers become oriented toward informing the public rather than burnishing the brand of a particular corporation. Stamen, with only a dozen staffers, is actually one of the largest independent studios in the world, Cami says.

The data visualization field is dotted with many small agencies of two or three principals, Cami says. “Many have no interest in establishing a sizable, global business,” he says.

On the West Coast, the community of firms includes Halftone, a data visualization agency in San Francisco’s tech gulch south of Market Street; Oakland, CA-based Pitch Interactive; and Portland, OR-based Periscopic, a self-described “socially conscious” data visualization outfit whose motto is “Do Good with Data.” Paul Van Slembrouck, who co-founded Halftone in 2012 with his business partner Michael Porath, says the members of these small agencies are all friends. One of the main motivating forces for some of these designers is to be recognized by their peers for their expertise, Van Slembrouck says.

When he was younger, Van Slembrouck says, he tried to care about getting rich. He was an undergraduate business major and got a job with a Chicago financial firm.

“I found it dreadfully boring,” Van Slembrouck says. He realized that what he wanted to do was create data-driven tools like the New York Times’ interactive “rent calculator,” which helps people figure out whether they’d be better off if they rented or bought a home.

Now he and Porath provide data visualization support for non-profits that need to demonstrate the social impact of their work. They also help tech startups track progress in growing their sales or their user bases. Like Stamen, Halftone does side projects for fun. One is the Move-O-Scope app, which reveals the pattern of an individual’s life by showing the routes they habitually take over time between work, home, their friends‘ houses, and their shopping orbits. Halftone’s other free app, Green Button Data, shows PG&E customers the patterns of their home energy use as bubbles of different sizes throughout the day.

Stamen is also part of that open source, sharing culture. It offers free public access to some of the visual styles it has created for maps. Want a street map of your neighborhood that looks like a soft watercolor painting, or a stark comic book frame? Click here. People have printed their own customized maps on sneakers, tablecloths, and cupcakes.

Several years ago Cami, who was looking for a way to get to know talented data visualization groups that might work with Kantar and its clients, co-founded the Information Is Beautiful Awards in 2012 with David McCandless, a journalist and data designer. By inviting award submissions, Cami was able to gauge what the various design teams could do. In 2012, Stamen won the first Gold award for Most Beautiful Data Journalism for an interactive illustration that accompanied CNN’s coverage of U.S. war casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cami says Stamen has a very strong culture and a strong ethic. “Part of their success is their commitment to the work they do,” he says.

Stamen is keeping mum about some of its plans to create products that can scale up for larger markets. Asked whether the data visualization company could help consumers create customized designs for displays of their own data—making the “quantified self” a form of artistic self-expression—Christensen gives a cheery “No comment” that sounds like “Watch this space.”

Meanwhile, Kantar has found a way to meet its needs for data visualization experts. In February, Kantar bought the Guardian Digital Agency, a former graphic design unit of Guardian News & Media, the UK company that publishes the Guardian newspaper. Cami says clients of the Kantar group’s various companies are lining up to meet with the new, independent data visualization company, which has been renamed Graphic.

All signs point to growth in the data visualization field, Cami says. More and more data is being collected by governments, businesses, individuals, and devices, increasing the need for designers to illustrate the meaningful patterns they find in that information. More art schools are adding data visualization to their programs, he says.

While data visualization is a great tool for corporate communications, Cami has also been musing about its potential to create “emotionally engaging” consumer apps that would allow people to build environments for their data in the color palettes and visual styles of their choice.

“There are applications for this talent and skill that we haven’t even thought of yet,” Cami says.

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