Ben Fry takes a human-centric approach to data visualization

Ben Fry took the stage and kicked off Saturday’s sessions at SNDSF with impressive examples of data visualization, sharing everything from plotted zip codes to the progression of the six editions of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

But as he continued, he quickly made clear that his goal was not to intimidate people with big data but instead show how designers can share a story or provide context with this information.

In 2010, Fry founded Fathom Information Design as a way to take on larger projects. The goal for the projects, work like What the World Eats with National Geographic and FAOSAT, is to unpack large quantities of data into something understandable.

Fry noted that the final, consumable visualization doesn’t come immediately. His presentation showed iteration after iteration of every type of chart imaginable. He demonstrated the What the World Eats project with a version of a poster-sized print which he said was a jumping-off point for the final interactive project he and his team created.

But Fry is known for more than his work with Fathom. In 2001, with Casey Reas, he started,  a “flexible software sketchbook and a language for learning how to code within the context of the visual arts.”

Fry said is a way to get others involved in coding, adding how it is more interesting when you get outside people involved in the process.

The organization’s mission statement implies as much (and made the audience chuckle, too): is focused on a handful of human-centric main areas, a value that aligns with Fry’s other work. He emphasized the importance of the process, adding that he is more interested in the habits being built than the actual end product.

To emphasize his point, he compared using tools and coding software to writers using Microsoft Word and hoping it will help them get better: it is not that simple.

He compared the growth of digital technology to the growth of the photography industry: originally there was a large technical knowledge requirement but the industry has since grown into an easy, approachable one. He hopes that is the case for digital technology as well.

Fry shared his thoughts on language and literacy, noting how it is not important for everyone to know the same coding language, but instead that people know how to express their desire to use code in a way to successfully find a solution.

Fry went on to talk about the publishing of the Panama Papers. The public struggles to grasp information during leaks a fraction of its size, and its a challenge for an organization to figure out how to publish.

“Fundamentally, it’s a design problem,” he said.

“It needs to be understood by humans at the end of it.”

His two strongest examples came at the end: one focused on power in China and the other on the progress of females around the world.

For the Connections in China project, Fry first showed what not to do: on the screen he displayed an interactive graphic showing seemingly infinite connections — something impossible for the average person to digest. He walked through his team’s iterations and what they eventually settled on. He then showed the knock-off version designed by the Chinese government after Fathom’s project was blocked in the country.

He ended with the No Ceilings project, where the challenge was figuring out how to communicate this amount of information to a variety of consumers — everyone from millennials to policymakers themselves.

Each project Fry takes on is undoubtedly visually appealing. But more importantly, they are researched and developed in a way that will allow for the most understanding from the audience. He creates something interesting out of the mundane, something understandable from the intangible.