Stamen Design and the “Hippie Geeks” of Data Visualization

Aziz Cami saw the immense potential of data visualization six years ago, when he became creative director for Kantar, an international consortium of companies that advise business clients on their strategic moves and brand identities. A hum-drum element of design that used to be called “charts and graphs” has now evolved into a powerful means of transforming data into interactive, artistic displays that often convey meaning better than reams of print, he says.

His clients are now just as sold as he is on data visualization, and huge opportunities are out there for practitioners of the craft, Cami says. But there’s one big brake on the growth of the data visualization field right now—the difficulty of hiring expert designers, he says.

“It’s a talent challenge at the moment,” Cami says. Not that great talent isn’t out there. But often, data visualization wizards have more than big financial rewards in mind—such as creative exploration, or a social mission, or the admiration of their peers. To understand why well-heeled corporations might not always be able to land the data artisan of their choice, it helps to get acquainted with Bay area studios like San Francisco-based Stamen Design.

Stamen’s founder and CEO Eric Rodenbeck is a well-known pioneer of the data visualization community on the West Coast. Rodenbeck says he fell for the work of data visualization before the dot-com bubble burst, when he was mapping the positions of racing sailboats as the art and narrative director at the website Quokka Sports. He got hooked on presenting data not just as useful analysis, but also as entertainment and as a public service. In 2001 he founded Stamen, and since then his company has made a reputation not only for the beauty of its mapping projects, but also for its work in communicating threats to the environment, such as global warming.

“I didn’t want to make money doing annual reports for cigarette companies during the day, and then do Greenpeace brochures at night,” Rodenbeck says.

The company has charted the environmental impacts of climate change for conservation groups, and designed an interactive map that allows visitors to plot their own routes through the multi-story flow of museum exhibits at the renovated California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Nature and the environment are frequent themes for Stamen, but the company has also tracked the spread of real estate developments for Trulia, and built a collaborative online meeting place where BMW designers and production managers make decisions about new car models.

Cami says studios like Stamen are unlikely to lose commercial business by taking a stand on controversial issues such as global warming. In fact, it’s more the reverse, he says. It’s the data visualization studios that may be picky about the clients they’ll accept.

Stamen doubles as a client services company and a sort of sandbox for experiments in art, storytelling, and advocacy. The studio conducts its own “research” projects that sometimes make use of expertise it has gained by working for a client. One example is Stamen’s transportation investigation called The City from the Valley, which mapped the routes of private, wifi-equipped shuttle buses that take tech workers from their home neighborhoods in San Francisco to suburban campuses of Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Apple and Yahoo.

“I’m pleased when people can’t tell what we’ve gotten paid to do and not gotten paid to do,” Rodenbeck says.

Stamen offered up its shuttle bus maps for public interpretation. San Francisco public radio station KQED noted that the shuttles might improve the environment by getting more commuter cars off the road. But KQED also raised the possibility that the private shuttles, by stopping at busy public bus stops, might also have sunk ridership on public transit.

At its Mission District headquarters in a former rug factory, Stamen is not the typical ambitious tech company. It’s surrounded by Bay Area startups that dream of vast riches and exponential growth based on a Web platform where users provide most of the content. Stamen’s designers might have more common with—Lord help them—journalists, who think creating content is a reward in itself.

Stamen doesn’t disclose its financial details, but it has stayed in business for nearly 14 years, working with clients as varied as MTV, Nasdaq, and the National Audubon Society. It now has 12 staffers in San Francisco and at its Seattle and New York outposts. That’s not the growth trajectory of a social media platform in rapid growth mode, ready to belly up to the IPO bar. But Stamen recently announced plans for expansion on its own terms.

The company is extending its reach to Los Angeles. Longtime collaborator Jon Christensen, a journalist and UCLA adjunct assistant professor who specializes in environmental issues, is setting up a Stamen office in L.A. and kicking in some funding to boot. Christensen, now a partner, will help Stamen cultivate clients such as art museums, data archives, and companies that are part of L.A.’s rich entertainment industry. There will also be environmental stories to tell—Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has opened public access to city data that can be used to understand urban problems such as transportation, Christensen says.

“L.A. is a great laboratory for thinking about the challenges facing cities worldwide,” Christensen (pictured above at left, with Rodenbeck) says.

But Stamen’s plans also include products and services that can scale up. One of these is a mobile app—tentatively called a “parkfinder”—where Californians can locate nearby parks and activities that appeal to them, whether the parks are run by the state, the federal government, or a city. The idea stems from a Stamen project that tracked Twitter activity originating inside parks—like selfies taken in front of huge redwood trees, or close-ups of animals. That initiative revealed that parks are attracting new demographic groups such as young urban dwellers and Latinos. The parkfinder app could encourage other members of those groups to feel more welcome in the parks by including links to social media messages by people like themselves, Christensen says.

Rodenbeck and Christensen are interested in 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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