Happy holidays, merry Christmas, happy new year, and happy birthday (to me!)
This time of year is an avalanche of celebrations: December 25th is Christmas (always a big to do with my family), the 31st we have New Years Eve, and then of course, New Years Day, which also happens to be my birthday. As someone who hates being the center of attention, I usually spend New Years Eve / my birthday at home cooking something with my family or having drinks at home with a few friends. Of course, this year, I don’t have much choice, and your New Years will probably look a lot more like mine.
Like most people, I didn’t accomplish all that I wanted in 2020, and that’s just fine. But when you’re always looking towards the next goal, it’s easy to forget all that you did achieve. I set myself 5 professional development goals for 2020, and turns out that I (mostly) achieved them
In addition to all of that, here’s some other things I accomplished that I’m proud of:
Published my first piece in a major publication (and in print!) with my graphic on hurricanes in Scientific American Magazine
Wrote a lot of blog posts, including these stories for Nightingale on building a career in dataviz
Started interacting with the community in new and exciting ways, including infrequent livestreams, and this newsletter!
Finished my year-long generative art tutorial and blogging project
I’m still mulling over my goals for 2021, but one thing I know for sure is that I want to learn more about traditional graphic design and art techniques (painting, photography, illustration, etc) and how I can incorporate these into my work. It’s actually something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so I decided to write about it, and it all starts with a story about one of my favorite past times…
I used to play a lot of video games. When I was young, it was the Nintendo 64, then the Xbox and its descendants, and eventually I graduated to PC gaming. I remember playing strategy games–Starcraft, Warcraft, Heroes of Might and Magic–with my friends during sleepovers (this was before online gaming was big). Then I discovered World of Warcraft and became completely obsessed. I’m a naturally competitive person, if I’m going to do something I want to do it at the highest level, and so there were days that I would play for 8-12 hours, a feat I continued when I later moved on to League of Legends. These games were important to me, they helped me develop social skills and express my creativity.
A few years ago, I had to give up video games. I had just become obsessed with data visualization, and had to devote hours every night to teaching myself design and coding. When you’re essentially working two full-time jobs, there’s not much time for video games. In the years since, I’ve tried starting them up again, but without hours to devote to the game, I couldn’t reach the competitive level that I enjoyed. Then, in early 2019, I saw a trailer for a game called Gris and it blew me away with its sheer beauty. The entire game looks like one big watercolor painting, full of surrealist landscapes, and executed so convincingly that you’d struggle to distinguish many frames from traditional watercolor artwork. I played the game through in a single day, and it was a totally different experience than my previous gaming life. Gris isn’t concerned with being competitive or even skillful. The game mechanics are fun, but not complex or difficult to master. Instead it draws you in with the beautiful art and keeps you completely entranced with these otherworldly scenes and continually creative levels.
Since Gris, I’ve found several other games that imitate traditional art styles. Dordogne is a game still in development that isn’t just inspired by watercolors, but where each frame is literally a watercolor painting created by hand. Wu Ji Dao Ren is another game in development that is based on a traditional Chinese water-ink painting style.
I’ve noticed a similar trend in generative art, where several artists are blending traditional techniques with generative algorithms. In the last newsletter I wrote about Helena Sarin, who makes art with neural networks. But you might not realize that the input to these networks is usually traditional artwork that Helena draws or paints herself, using pastels, paints, and more. Tyler Hobbs has also used hand-drawn inputs for his generative artwork, but more recently he’s gone the other direction, starting with a generative algorithm that draws outlines using the pen plotter, which he then fills in by hand with paint.
On the subject of dataviz, some practicioners have begun combining traditional artwork styles with digital formats. Michelle Rial has an entire book that brilliantly uses painting, ordinary objects, and illustration to encode data. Of course, there’s several designers that use illustration along with dataviz, notably Giorgia Lupi, Stefanie Posavec, and Mona Chalabi. Recently, Gabrielle Merite beautifully used paint to encode data, along with collage and digitally drawn guides and axes.
The commonality in all of these projects is that they combine the traditional with the digital. In film writing and genre fiction there is a concept called The Strange Attractor which states that the most compelling plots for stories combine something ordinary with something strange or extraordinary. Japanese manga stories are a great example: they often use a traditional high school as the setting–it’s familiar, it’s relatable–but then they add the strange part, like the teacher might be an alien.
These stories work so well because of the contrast. You have something intriguing to hook people and keep them engaged, but the familiar part makes people feel comfortable, safe, and willing to explore your strange idea. Readers will all have a personal preference. Romance novels often lean towards the familiar because that’s what their audience wants, but go too far and it becomes bland: mashed potatoes with cauliflower.
I propose that blending the traditional with the digital is the information design version of The Strange Attractor. In our case, you get the benefits of digital or data-driven methods–accuracy and trust–while getting the warmth and humanism that comes from traditional art. As with The Strange Attractor, projects may lean one direction or the other based on your audience. Obviously you shouldn’t start using watercolors on your business dashboards, but I wish we saw more of it in journalism and public-facing reports.
Finally, I want to take a moment to thank all of you for supporting me and my work. I’ve received dozens (hundreds even?) of messages over the past year from readers responding to this newsletter, people DMing me on Twitter, or people who just came across a blog post and emailed me about it. I’m very new to data visualization, coding, design, all of this, so I didn’t come into this with connections or a community, and getting messages of support or hearing how my work has helped others is really what keeps me going.
I have no formal education in design or coding. And this year, I feel like for the first time, I can say I made a living as a professional designer and developer. That is thanks, in large part, to all of the people who liked and shared my work, followed me, helped me with problems either directly or indirectly, and were there when I needed support. Despite my relatively newness to this field, I was welcomed with open arms and I feel incredibly fortunate for all of the support I’ve received and the success it has enabled.
Thank you all, enjoy the holidays, and here’s to a smashing 2021!