Introducing the family... Josh, studio creative and data visualisation dude

In our ongoing series, we’re getting under the skin of borne family members. Meet Josh, studio creative and data visualisation dude, he’s the type of man who likes making rows of numbers into big complex charts for fun.

Tell us about yourself, what do you do and where do you come from? (Sounding a bit Cilla Black now aren’t we).

I grew up on the Norfolk coast before heading off to study Graphic Design at Falmouth University in Cornwall. I then spent five years working in London for agencies like CHI & Partners, BBH and Signal Noise. Aside from more traditional design disciplines I also specialise in information design and data visualisation, deciphering complex data sets and displaying them visually to help an audience gain an insight or narrative.

I left the big smoke and moved back to Norwich about a year ago. I am now a Senior Designer at borne. This means I’m involved with much of the work that comes through the studio, whether it’s coming up with initial concepts and ideas or crafting the final designs.

Data visualisation sounds like quite a niche skill. How did you end up specialising in this style of design for a living?

I never really expected to be able to specialise in data visualisation. I fell into it by accident in my last year of university whilst doing a brief about space. I ended up visualising when every planet in the solar system and it’s moons were discovered. From that one project I was hooked and began exploring it in other university projects and in my spare time. No one else I knew was exploring it, so I thought I might as well, and it made sense to me to be doing something different.

Once I was working full time, I still found myself experimenting in the evenings, and began to pick up a few freelance clients who had seen what I’d put online. It was also these self-initiated projects that first made information design agency Signal Noise notice me, and I ended up taking part in their annual data visualisation exhibition, eventually leading to me working full time for them.

How does designing with data differ from traditional design? You wouldn’t always expect a creative thinker to be into numbers too!

While it obviously benefits from a strong understanding of the basics of design, data visualisation is a very different skill to a lot of other design disciplines. It requires a quite intense research and subject understanding to be able to decipher complex datasets, and structured, logical thought to be able to design it in a way that tells the story of the data to various audiences. I always enjoyed delving into subjects and finding as much as possible about them, and I’m quite a logically minded person, so I’m probably quite well suited to this type of nonsense.

What is it about information design that makes you tick?

I love the idea that nothing is too complex to be shown visually, and that good design can make anything more easily understood. It’s a satisfying challenge to try and show trends and narratives that are hidden within a data set, especially to audiences with different levels of engagement or interest. Raw data is hard to understand, the human mind isn’t built to understand a row of numbers in a spreadsheet, but display those numbers using size, shape or colour and you make them tangible.

Data visualisation sits at a fascinating crossroads between science, maths and design. This act of collecting and researching data, learning to understand it and making hypothesis about narratives and interesting trends and stories you might find, then preparing and organising the data is a very practical, scientific process.

This precedes the design process; sketching initial visualisation ideas and working out the best way to display this information, which often requires a few sums to work out the relationship between the size of visualisation aspects and the data, whether this is the relative heights of a bar chart or the incremental angles needed to show every piece of data around a circle. Obviously this is a very fiddly, complicated process, and seeing it all come together is immensely satisfying.

I think the variety of subject matter that has been, and can be, displayed visually is also fascinating. Data can be collected and visualised about almost anything, and has been a powerful tool in evidencing claims throughout history, often saving lives. Some of the most famous data visualisations demonstrate how Florence Nightingale explained that epidemic diseases killed more soldiers than battle wounds in the Crimean war in 1859 as she attempted to improve hospital conditions, how extreme weather conditions, lack of food and disease decimated Napoleon’s army as he marched into Russia (and back again) in 1812, how John Snow (of neither the Nights Watch or Channel 4 news) discovered that outbreaks of cholera were more severe around water pumps in Victorian London, and how human error, and lack of good data visualisation, most likely caused the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

What has been one of the most satisfying projects you’ve worked on?

The most satisfying data visualisations I’ve worked on were for the three exhibitions I produced posters for. Each exhibition had an overarching title, and we were free to explore any subject around that theme.

During the course of the exhibitions I explored what happens to the almost incomprehensible amount of data produced in less than a second in the Large Hadron Collider; how an algorithm predicts the best selling pop songs of all time would perform in the current music market; how much information is available about a person online and what that can tell us about them, and how London’s transport infrastructure is ill-prepared for the city’s growing population.

Running interactive exhibitions at the Science Museum and as part of the D&AD festival were also highlights. We tried to gauge how people feel about their privacy being abused online by using different coloured helium balloons. Serious issues are always best explored with brightly coloured latex.

Do you have any creatives that inspire you? Anyone you would recommend others checking out their work?

Made from Data. Paul is one of my best friends and easily the most incredible information designer I’ve ever met. He produces and sells some awesome data vis prints. That said, I worked next to him for two years, and never quite got over the fact he puts milk in before the teabag. It still upsets me when I think about it.

What would be your biggest piece of advice to businesses who are wanting to use data visualisation as part of a campaign?

Advertising campaigns aren’t a good place for complex information design. Most people don’t have time or inclination to decipher information they didn’t ask to see. You’re asking a lot of people to digest information you’re presenting them, so it belongs in a space where people have time to explore it and have enough interest to put the effort into doing so. If you’re going to use a data visualisation as advertising then it has to be immediately digestible or have a very obvious point.

Let’s see if we can solve your digital data problems. Get in touch with us at hello@weareborne.com or call 01603 699 954.