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Big Data, New Visual Opportunities: The Age of Information Arts

April 9th, 2012

Communication Manifested as Tangible Image: Aaron Koblin’s New York Talk Exchange illustrates real time text and internet data flowing outward to other cities.

I was recently speaking with an accomplished commercial photographer about how the industry has changed. The market for corporate and editorial photography has been commoditized — as almost everything has been — by technology. On top of everything, agencies like Corbis and Getty have been purchasing whole catalogs and smaller photo agencies over the past decade. As they have aggregated into Goliath holding companies, we have witnessed firsthand how our power to negotiate on behalf of the client was compromised. They demand payment on their own terms and set their own pricing; they even have discovered new revenue streams from surcharge fees to the small, independent photographers whose images they represent. It’s been so frustrating that at times I considered writing to local Congressmen and asking for an inquiry into antitrust violations.

One of our designers recently found a new agency, Image Brief (, which takes a different approach. Seeking to bypass traditional agencies, this company inverts the process, so instead of developing a website resource with millions of images and allowing users to search, they allow an agency or anyone who creates an account to post a need by subject matter. Photographers all over the world can monitor the boards and then send their submissions to that contact.

In my 28 years, imagery has evolved dramatically. Illustration was once a viable, relevant way to communicate ideas visually. I recall sitting at lunches and dinner parties at the Society of Illustrators, a venerable institution once frequented by members such as Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, Frederic Remington, and James Montgomery Flagg. Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie were among the luminaries attending as guests during the golden age of illustration.

Society of Illustrators

By the early 1990’s, it was apparent that photography was considered a more appropriate, immediate and cost-effective way to represent content in corporate marketing as well as traditional editorial products. Many of the products that IridiumGroup created in those early years relied heavily on photography, which had a feeling of urgency and authenticity. Illustration began to seem too “poetic” and required too much thoughtful interpretation for commercial marketing products.

In recent years, video has dominated branded literature and increasingly traditional editorial properties like The New York Times online. That trend will continue to follow an ever-increasing bandwidth, but also threatens to lose its relevance simply because of the incredible amount of message/content clutter. I recall a magazine editor asking me if I thought they should publish cartoons; the answer was simple: If they are appropriate to the audience, yes — but only if they are also good. In coming years, the same will hold true for video.

Most recently, I’ve witnessed the resurgence of information graphics as entry points to engage the reader and add understanding to the content. We’ve been applying various styles and techniques to reflect the brand identity systems of various clients, and the approach has been well received. Art for the sake of art can be compelling and inspirational, but as it turns out, creative art concepts that also have important referential meaning can help communicate critical data.

Images are becoming sources of information more than ever before, and they’re expected to perform at a higher level. A client-side manager at a large private foundation recently asked for an unexpected, unusual approach: Create information graphics that tell a story, a narrative — ones which incorporate no data points whatsoever. It’s a fresh perspective. In fact, why not let an information graphic take the place of opening art altogether? The evolution seems clear: Hook the reader faster; be more efficient and require less space; be less about emotion or feeling, but rather embed factual intelligence into the art. Ultimately, after all, isn’t that our jobs as visual communicators — to create understanding out of information?

This weekend, The Wall Street Journal had a great article about infographics as contemporary art:

Making Data Beautiful

We read all the time about the proliferation of demographic data from social media, a phenomenon termed “Big Data.” We now live in the era of big data, and so isn’t it appropriate that art would reflect that overwhelming aggregation of facts?

Humans process information 17 times faster using sight than other senses, according to one Danish physicist, as reported in The Wall Street Journal. People like Aaron Koblin, a data-driven digital artist, are reinventing the medium. He studies everything from cable-box data to text message patterns and creates a “design story” from the raw data, distilling information into visual expressions. “You can turn data into rhythms,” says Mr. Koblin, whose work is in MOMA. “CNBC has a constant rhythm, really local. But CNN is really event-driven—and you get these crazy spikes.” On text message art, he shared more. “You really understand a lot about cities from flows, when people are awake and doing what things at what locations,” says Mr. Koblin. “And you can say, people in Brooklyn tend to get up later than people in Manhattan.”

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This entry was posted on Monday, April 9th, 2012 at 10:47 am and is filed under Design, Marketing, Media, Social Media, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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IridiumGroup Inc.

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