“Making Smart Information Real”

slides and commentary from a talk at PDX DataViz Meetup

hosted by @Periscopic
Portland, Oregon
October 1 2014

thx again to Kim Rees, Dino Citraro, and Meli Lewis for the invite!


"Making Smart Information Real" by Mike Pell

“Making Smart Information Real”
a talk by Mike Pell


Mike Pell, Senior Designer, The Microsoft Garage

If you’re curious, I’m a Designer/Coder/Disruptor who’s been at MSFT for over 12 years now. Worked in alot of groups across the company – mobile, search, cloud, office, etc. Currently having a great time in The Microsoft Garage.


smart information

So, what is “smart information” anyway?
It’s how I refer to a vision for anyone being able to deeply interact with any type of information in ways that aren’t generally available yet.


NYC Subway sign

Is that Smart Information?

No. That’s obviously a filthy, disgusting subway sign in NYC with some redeeming Swiss typography.


Parking space numbering

Is that Smart Information?

No, definitely not. If I have to take a picture of where I parked, this information is not helping.


my breakfast

Is that Smart Information?

No. But, it was a really great breakfast :-)


iWatch concepts

That must be Smart Information, right?

Nope. Just a really stunning design comp by Todd Hamilton showcasing how smart devices and slick software could provide great experiences. The data shown within the displays is still dumb as hell.


Smart Information

Smart Information?

Yes, absolutely. Why? Because it can tell you more about itself on demand, optimized for quick and clear communication of the most relevant detail.


The quest for smart information

Why should we care about creating Smart Information?

Well, to start – information (in all of its forms) is now center stage in how we’ve come to think about designing almost any kind of experience – whether entertainment, business, art, or education. Yet, it’s almost completely static in most cases.

As a community of super-smart practitioners worldwide, it’s time to get ourselves into a position where we could leverage each other’s great work in our quest for information that isn’t just dead pixels, but rather capable of telling its own story if asked.


Recent talks by M. Pell

The quest for Smart Information has taken me on a journey through different phases of the process over the last several months. Over the course of four talks, I’ve outlined how we get from A to B, and how we each have a critical role to play in its evolution.


secret encoded message

Bonus:   secret phrase encoded in the talk titles.

OK, you’re right… I did just make that up. But, it is what we’re after.
Making a smart interface platform real.




The age of smart information

In my talk at Visualized 2014 in NYC, the vision for smarter future was painted, and the challenge for each of us to do our part issued.


What if any  could tell its own story?

The basic premise of the talk was this –
“What if any <thing/> could tell its own story?”

In this context, my definition of is quite broad. I’m really talking about visualizations, infographics, data sets, and information in general.

If we agree that’s useful and desirable in some situations, the next question logically is “how would we get there?”



We seem to be just on the verge of a leap across the chasm – from today’s predominantly static content and rudimentary interactivity (telling the story), to the next phase of information’s evolution – the ability to deeply engage, explore, and share without friction (clarifying the story).


The Moment of Clarity
The Moment of Clarity
Clarity = Sharp Focus.

When communicating information, we should strive to get our audience to the moment of clarity as quickly as possible. Why make them wallow and wander in content, having to reach insights by themselves rather than speed them to the point? They can decide what to do next, whether that’s making a decision or taking action (or not).


What do you mean?

To get from where we are today to where we should be in terms of shifting our focus to exploration and understanding, we’ll have to approach our work from a very different perspective.


This quick demo illustrates how even a simple electronic newspaper article can quickly summarize its key points upon request or be deeply explored in a fluid manner that supports natural curiosity.

New York Times demo

Here’s how that would play out as shown in my “New York Times” demo from Visualized 2014.

video demo at 06:00 min mark




Information as Interface

We have made the transition from information being held captive inside user interface widgets needed to consume or author, to a world where it’s front and center.


Content over Chrome is now a reality

Word with no chrome

Even programs like Microsoft Word have greatly reduced the footprint of “chrome” (the Ribbon still has menus, toolbars, palettes, etc but they can be hidden and for the most part stay out of the way of the content). The “chrome” is often completely hidden in Modern app design.


Information first

When looking at well designed information like this from an EU Energy project, I’m finding it more common that people assume and expect interactivity in our content and are familiar with the basics. So, you would assume the content or information itself has little need to show affordances up front. Check it out for yourself at EU Energy data



The content itself should now be considered the primary user interface, not the chrome and affordances that were bolted on in previous eras.


Visualization is the conversation.

So, it follows that information display or visualization of data must inherently support exploration and direct manipulation of elements to assist in discovery and understanding.


Gestures are the language.

We also need to replicate the common interaction language we all know and use today. Any predictable and simple set of gestures could become a new de facto language of communicating, exploring, and interacting with information. The details of this should be worked out in practice where we develop a shared library of common gestures (touch, air, pen) that help people work with information more fluidly than today.


Function follows form (when interacting with content)

Every Design student will say I’m an idiot for saying this, but think about it – this is absolutely true for “smart information”.


Excel example

normal looking sales slide

This example should be pretty obvious. You’d expect poking this would invoke something like Microsoft Excel based on the shape of the information, right?


Two overlapping circles

Thought exercise: What do you think this shape would allow?


 interaction sketches

When I see visualizations, my mind goes immediately to how you’d interact and explore the information. These sketches are an example of how I start to envision standard “conversations” with smart information or data sets.


What does that feel like?

To get from where we are today to where we should be in terms of shifting our focus to exploration and understanding, we’ll have to approach our work from a very different perspective.


Here’s an example of taking something not widely regarded as data, but applying the same experience design principles and infrastructure to show how artwork can be deeply explored just as we would a rich data set.

Artwork as smart information demo

The mixed media artwork of NYC artist Sharon Pell-Lie is densely multi-layered, utilizing vintage maps as its core data sets in which deeper insights are revealed upon exploration.

You can see the “artwork demo” from my Visualized 2014 talk.
video demo at 16:30 min mark




The smart information platform

This section focuses on the technology infrastructure, conventions, and behaviors we need to define and invest in. Ultimately, any successful movement will depend upon a platform that can be leverage quickly and easily by most of us. We need to stop reinventing things every time. Shared platforms are one way of thinking about addressing that need.


The information stack

In the grand scheme of things, we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s eventually possible when turning raw data and information into insights, knowledge and wisdom.

The colored section in the diagrams (above) represents our focus these days – mining the foundation of data and information for greater understanding – predominantly through highly manual means. There are many tools and approaches available to create knowledge and even insight these days, but achieving wisdom remains a human activity.

(Production note: Upon some reflection, I changed this slide from the one presented at PDX. This seems easier to understand and probably more accurate.)


Where the smart information platform fits

If we’ve already built tools to produce insights, then why do we need a smart information platform?

Several reasons, but the main one is we need to stop spending so much time, effort and money on the highly manual and painstaking process of producing the visualizations and infographics from cleaned data sets.

Conceptually, the platform sits above raw data and information, but the truth is we need to aim lower. Data should eventually appear to come wrapped in smart information containers, accessed through common protocols, and manipulated through well documented mechanisms in the interchange and interaction platform libraries.


How do we get there?

How so we get there? Good question. The simplest answer on the technical side is to start wrapping data in containers that can be accessed and utilized in predictable ways. The format, protocols and APIs are all things we’ll have to work together as a community to figure out.


Invert our basic approach

Getting there requires and inversion of process, and quite a mindshift from where we are today. We need to start from the experience perspective, not cleaning the data set (heresy, i know). It’s fairly straightforward to imagine how this is done on the technical foundation side by wrapping the data in containers that know how to interoperate, but the design of smart information from an experience approach takes us to a place where it’s assumed that all data sets, visualizations, and infographics respond effortlessly to curiosity and inquiry. It feels as if they knew what you were going to be interested in before you even asked.


Start from the end

Start from the end really means putting the information consumer’s experience first. What do you want them to get out this? What state of mind could they be in? Envisioning how it feels to interact with smart information before diving into the detail, minutia, and drudgery of data cleaning is where we can truly understand how the information containers need to be built. Easy to say, harder to do in practice.



In fact, one of the leading voices in the data visualization space these days makes this point better than I ever could. Rachel Binx presented this set of slides at the September PDX Data Viz meetup. I couldn’t agree more – many of us still leave the hardest part (designing and implementing the interaction with data) for the very end. The smart information platform needs us to build in as much of this base interaction as possible – much like the iOS developer experience provides sophisticated behaviors and animation so people can focus on the content itself.


Desired experiene

Even if we did always start from the experiential part of the equation, the question still remains as to what behaviors and interactions are actually desired by both the author and the consumer. The best way to think about this is to think about your pleasant surprises – signature moments, that have happened while exploring and learning.

There’s a magic you feel emotionally when something becomes crystal clear to you. We need to get much better at engineering that moment of clarity.


Expected capabilities

Everyone who uses a computer knows you can Copy something from one place and Paste it into another. It’s so basic, we hardly spend any time thinking about it at all. Entry level skill, expected capability of any system. That’s exactly what we need to define together for the smart information platform – those expected capabilities and common interactions anyone would reasonably expect from a well-designed content of any sort.


The beauty we seek is not found in first impressions, but rather in how the truth reveals itself.

But, there is still something we are fighting against in our quest to reach smart information – first impression. We can’t keep designing primarily for initial aesthetic and first impressions. No question that’s important, and has to be present to a degree, but we get so much further with understanding when natural curiosity is rewarded with true gems. Lasting impressions are not far behind.




Making smart information real

Everything to this point is really just a bunch of talk – so, let’s get real. This doesn’t require committees, meetings or anything formal. It’s up to each of us to stop talking and start doing. We need to start publishing more examples of how we can build upon simple platforms and techniques, then leverage each other’s work.


We need to build the platform

Driving this vision into reality is mostly about getting started with the first small step – create wrappers around data sets that allow them to be consistently reused and leveraged. Don’t overthink it – just do it.

From there it leads to these becoming true:

platform 3

platform ideas

platform ideas


In closing…

We really can’t do this alone. There has to be a truly open exchange of ideas, code, and technique to move all of this forward quickly.

Let's do this together


There’s no question the Smart Information future is going to happen.
Are you in?

Thank you


Mike Pell

Current Thinking

Top Visualization Traps (to avoid)

Wrong Focus


bigquoteThe truth is, at times we’re all seduced by the idea of immortality through our work.

There are alot of good reasons the best and brightest of us go off on tangents – the thrill of exploring new frontiers, thinking truly radical thoughts, following a gut instinct, and a host of other very defensible excuses.

But, as data visualization matures and becomes a truly mainstream form of communication for the masses, those tangents often turn out to be “traps” that our minds ignore for the aforementioned reasons. I do them. You do them. We all do them on occasion.

The heart of the problem seems to be that we sometimes tend to focus on the wrong things in order to make our work stand out. That’s not always a conscious choice. It happens in subtle ways as we work toward true breakthroughs, innovating or just hitting our deadlines.

When looking at these traps we fall into, you’ll probably find they also apply to many other design scenarios outside the field. I still catch myself stepping right into these holes from time to time.


Top Visualization Traps to avoid

Deep Hole

Initial impressions,
instead of deep understanding.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That phrase is so prevalent and sage-sounding as we start our professional careers that it’s hard to to ever question it. Perhaps if more people did, they’d realize the other ubiquitous pearl of wisdom “Beauty is only skin deep” is the more appropriate one to heed when it comes to conceptualizing how to communicate the true value/message contained within non-trivial data sets.

A quick spin through many current examples of visualization and infographic pieces begins to feel like they were (perhaps unintentionally) designed to focus almost solely on initial impact and attraction vs. surfacing key insights or significant detail where appropriate. When designing the experience of consuming and sharing our work, it becomes apparent that it’s often that second and third wave of thought and discovery that truly excites people once the initial splash fades.

Yes, it is much harder to sell based on structural integrity vs. curb appeal. Not saying the work shouldn’t be stunning on first inspection – it needs to be to compete for attention and be noticed in this world of ours. That said, it can be stunningly simple, stunningly clear, stunningly moving. There needs to be that critical balance of aesthetic and approach + surfacing insights to jump start anyone’s deeper understanding of your point.

To our great advantage, the medium we work in is capable of so much more than we sometimes use it for. Great design, interactivity, animation, sleek packaging, and clear data representation techniques are our tools. Let’s use them to balance, not bowl over.


instead of well understood patterns.

The truth is, at times we’re all seduced by the idea of immortality through our work. If we come up with something truly original, they’ll all sit up and take notice, right? Exactly. So, let’s do this thing unlike anything else that’s ever been published – people will love it. I already love it. And that’s all that matters in the end really. Am I right?

Facetiousness aside, there are countless examples of people delivering work that is different just to be different – rather than embrace something familiar to the audience which requires no decoding or prolonged period of starring blankly at the imagery.

Don’t get me wrong – I know as well as you true breakthroughs sometimes take a strange path. Sometimes it’s a novel approach that pushes us all forward in positive ways. Other times it’s that experiment that failed which helped us learn more than if we had succeeded.

Just be honest about what your goals are. Don’t confuse novelty with innovation. If you’re not careful, you’ll fall into this trap filled with very pointy feedback from very puzzled people. Wouldn’t a simple bar chart have worked there? ouch.

Your customers and audience will value, love and respect your work if they can understand it without friction. Trust me.


instead of predictability.

I knew you were going to say predictability is boring. It kinda is, I know. But, guess what – you’re smarter than alot of people consuming your work. Let’s come back to that point in just a sec.

What is the difference between cleverness and novelty anyway? Aren’t they the same things? Nope. Not even close in this setting. Being clever in visualization and interaction provides something unexpected but very satisfying – often in a “wink wink” insider joke kinda way. Being novel on the other hand really refers more to the new tack and approach taken. It’s newness is the thing. You might hate it. But it’s novel alright.

Now, back to that thought about how you are more clever than alot of other people looking at your work. You know exactly what that monstrously large and complicated data set is telling you. So, why not project that exceedingly clever insight of yours onto the final deliverable?

Well, for starters even though many people will get it and appreciate your command of the material, others will have been much better off consuming something they find familiar, predictable and well understood. Just like with novelty, they’ll spend more time decoding your clever take on the data set or infographic rather than truly absorbing what you’d like them to walk away with.

Predictability is not the enemy of coolness. Food for thought.


Data density,
instead of surfacing insights.

“You’re not really going to leave all that blank space, are you?” is typically how the conversation starts.

Data Lovers crave high density layouts to soak in all the facts they can handle. Designers on the other hand love their whitespace, negative space, airy layouts to let things breath, and just to piss you off – using large beautiful typography. It’s an easy argument for the Data Lover to win, though. How can you argue with the logic of having more high value data on the screen or page rather than wasting it on a pretty layout? I mean really. It’s no contest – until you consider we have been going about the display and visualization of data completely backwards for decades.

Surfacing insights (that are not readily discernable by the causal observer) is soooooo much more important these days than jamming as much data into a visualization as possible, I almost don’t know where to start. People are busy. They are not domain experts in everything you are. They are not as familiar with the subject matter, data, patterns, anomalies, and outliers as you are.

So, please – JUST TELL THEM what you gleaned by focusing on summarizing the key points in visual insights. You don’t have to remove the dense stacks of data completely, but at least don’t lead with them. Use progressive disclosure to aid in the discovery and internalization.

What’s that you say? Dense insights. Hmmm…


instead of flexible exploration.

It’s relatively easy to parameterize an interactive visualization so that certain properties are configurable at consumption time – sliders or knobs of some sort appear to allow easy value changes within the prescribed range. In reality though, it restricts as much as it helps.

Falling in to the trap of allowing only pre-determined pivots is paramount to leading the witness. Don’t give us predefined sliders that keep me on rails. Give me the ability to be truly curious and explore your data more fluidly. Yes, I know that’s really hard. It’s why we pay you so much ;-)

Try to consider more carefully how you’d allow for more organic explorations of the curious. Don’t just pick several properties to parameterize and call it good. Look for ways to open up the possibility of exploring all the different dimensions of the piece. Sounds like a ton of work, I know. But, it’s so worth it when you see people’s faces light up.

Yes, it takes infinitely more time than just isolating the key dimensions and slapping some sliders or drag actions in there. But, you’ll be setting the stage for the next big leap in visualization – freestyle exploration.


instead of multimodal input.

Most of the visualization pieces out there today rely upon either Mouse/Keyboard (or in the enlightened cases, Touch-first) interaction, but few are adept at allowing or even encouraging multimodal input.

We’re at that point in history where people believe they can poke, swipe, talk to, or even command things on their computing devices to do what they want. It’s only natural to want to interact with something in that way. Unfortunately, the truth is that voice, gesture, pen and gaze have not been deeply integrated into our playback platforms enough to encourage authors to leverage them.

But, the wrong thing to do here is to throw up our hands and say we’ll wait it out. The trap is falling into that “wait until its a standard” mentality. Your audience already expects this stuff to work just like all their other digital stuff. And furthermore, they would never articulate this way, but they do expect more than one input model to be possible at a time.

We are a multi-tasking, multimodal society. Our pieces should reflect that.


instead of true collaboration.

There’s nothing wrong with competition. Every industry and market segment has its share of healthy competition. It pushes us all forward, forces us step up and bring our “A” game to truly compete with the best every day. Although, it is a bit different in high tech (and certainly in the data viz space). We share code, best practices and are quick highlight great (and bad) examples.

We also reinvent the same things all the time.

In our effort to be noticed, novel, and clever, it seems we spend less time doing mutually beneficial collaboration with our frenemies and more time trying to design and build a better mousetrap for the fourth time.

There’s no question a real need exists to differentiate our work (whether to land that next client, be published or deliver that killer preso). That said, it’s been shown time and time again that we are always better together. Few things we do completely on our own is truly better than what can be accomplished with the creative spark and push of our friends, competitors and audience/customers working together.

Still waiting to see the mashups, mixups, and true breakthrough collaboration in visualization we see in many other fields.


instead of clarity.

With so many talented Designers and Data Scientists on the scene there’s been a real emphasis on producing high quality visual appearance of new infographics and visualizations. That’s incredibly great of course, until that focus on aesthetic takes away from effectively communicating. And therein lies the dilemma – we need BOTH beauty and clarity. The trap is continuing to choose visual appeal aspects over nailing the communication of core concepts.

“Clearly Beautiful” needs to become “Beautifully Clear”.

And let’s be honest, clarity is not that easy to achieve quickly in people’s eyes and mind. Reaching that critical “moment of clarity” sometimes requires a bit of discovery and disclosure. Think about those time lapse videos of a beautiful flower opening you’ve seen on TV. Flowers are naturally gorgeous to look at while closed and not moving. Yet, when you see them go through the motion and process of blooming right in front of your eyes it’s absolutely breathtaking. That feeling is what we should strive for.

The beauty we seek is not found in first impressions, but rather in how the truth reveals itself.



What are the visualization traps you’ve fallen into?

Current Thinking

Design Problem – personalized hotel room

I did a design problem awhile ago that asked: “What would a hotel room be like if it could be customized to the traveler’s tastes?” Sound familiar to any Google Designers out there? ;-)

Here’s a sketch of my solution, timeboxed to 3 hours…

Internet of Things - hotel room design


bigquoteImmediately immerse the person in their own life and loves. It feels nothing like it used to be – sterile, lonely, and sad.



The room feels modern, warm, connected, alive, comfortable, safe, private.

  • Highly personalized room design based on shared information
  • Feels like a super high end luxury experience, much better than home
  • Immersed in messages and communication; they appear projected on the floor, walls, windows
  • Walls are used as giant displays for entertainment, business and communications
  • Sensors embedded throughout the room to respond to proximity, speech and desires
  • Seamlessly connected to all of the services you’d expect from your phone or tablet

It gives me access to my shows and movies, new music releases that fit my tastes, easy booking of events, restaurants, concerts. Contacting my family and friends is easy, ideas for healthy activities and transportation to them, a whole library of books from Amazon, and local shopping that’s delivered right to my room.




Since I set out to keep this timeboxed to 3 hours total, I choose a very straightforward approach:

Brainstorm and Quick Research (1 hr)
Sketching and Notes (1 hr)
Comps and Writeup (1hr)


My first thoughts were to make the room feel it’s a reflection of the person and their loves, not a sterile and empty feeling room. It would need to leverage the technology of the Internet of Things and smart homes to pull this off. All while keeping my huge concerns about privacy and security top of mind. The target customer I envisioned was the frequent business traveler – a person who is in a difficult situation any way you look at it. Away from anything they call home, out-of-sorts, lonely, bored, excited, deviant.

State-of-the-art technology is deeply integrated throughout every part of the room, but blends so deeply it seems completely natural.




Wish my room wasn’t so generic and sterile.
Wow. This TV is so old and small compared to mine.
Ugh, why is the WiFi so slow?
Wonder what cool things to do are close…
I feel so isolated and alone here.
Really can’t wait to go home.


I love this room! Wow, is this really mine?
OMG. It’s so cool, I have to post pics right now.
Can’t believe all my shows and music are right here.
They made it soooo easy to have a great time.
Hmmm… wonder if I could extend my stay?



It’s not so much about the view itself, but rather how it’s now augmented with basic communications, map overlays in matching perspective, contextual news and weather.

Approaching the glass triggers a subtle transformation to a heads-up display, and ensuing conversation with Siri or Cortana (detected of course).

When you do choose to call home, the glass also displays a relevant communication summary.



Illustrates the deep integration of tech within the living space:


Some of the tech:

  • Floor to ceiling screens for primary input, backlit to combat glare and low projection contrast
  • Projected messages and images on the floor for effect
  • Kinect-like sensor arrays provide input on all window and glass surfaces
  • Smart Home connectivity and sensors for proximity interactions and mood lighting


This was a fun problem to work on – imagining how digital technology could make any dumpy generic hotel chain room feel even better than your own home. Given the rate of progress with sensors and networked devices within the Internet of Things universe, this should all be possible today.


Ready to book this room?
Great. Me too.

Current Thinking

Art(ist) imitates Data (Scientist)


NYC Artist Sharon Pell-Lie used a Data Science approach to her creative work, which required leading with a stunning visualization but revealed its underlying data set upon closer inspection.


bigquoteThe map speaks to me. I can see patterns that aren’t visible to other people, but later appear like they were always there. – S*Pell.




Sharon Pell-Lie
22″ x 30″, mixed media on paper



Life imitates Art (they say). Well, now it appears Art imitates Data Science by surfacing seemingly invisible patterns in our surroundings.



Like many of us, Sharon Pell-Lie spent alot of effort locating, browsing, sampling, and finally selecting the right data sets to visualize. For her, old maps of NYC and Paris were the perfect inspiration, backdrop and data source to base her artwork upon. She spent many days over the years looking for small shops (data warehouses) that might have just the right maps (data sets) to use for a new project. And not unlike the tedious exploration of data feeds the Data Scientist endures, success often hinged on a bit of good fortune or serendipitous discovery. Once located, the adventure began and a world of possibilities emerged.





Sharon would say the map (data set) spoke to her. She could almost immediately get an impression of how the data could reveal itself through patterns not visible to the layman. But, to her trained eye, mental models and exciting concepts would leap from the page. Just like the senior financial analyst sees spreadsheets transform instantly into models and patterns in their minds’s eye, Sharon saw patterns within the data set (geographic shapes and labels) that formed unexpected insights (human forms). The surprising similarity to the approach and methodology between artist and data scientist is strongest at this phase of the project.





After identifying the underlying pattern in the data, Sharon would begin to sketch out that pattern as a guide or blueprint to how the final piece would emerge. This step required shaping the underlying information into its new form. She did this through charcoal pencil, just as the data scientist does it with tools like Tableau, R and Processing. Rough at first of course, but clearly indicative of where the final piece was headed. As with any good visualization project, there were many explorations of ideas, frustratingly close failed attempts, amusing outtakes, countless iterations, and finally just enough clarity to see the finished visual take shape within a framed outline.

Every interesting visualization, infographic or piece of art has multiple layers that comprise it – the underlying data, the form, and the expression.

Here are each of the levels of detail of the final artwork (data visualization):




The key to any good visualization is revealing a something within the data that may not be readily apparent to casual observer. This is often the “hero” or real point of all the work. In the case of Sharon’s art, it’s the fine detail and clever disclosure of playful landmarks and data points. Note how lower Manhattan mimics the curve of the thigh, almost perfectly, as if it was always there. The label of New York Harbor is clearly visible as a landmark to give context.

Lower Manhattan




She worked quickly and best with her favorite palette and toolset, but also challenged herself to try new techniques and approaches – just as any Data Scientist and Visualizer who’s pushing to find the next discovery would do on a regular basis.

Artists grow by challenging themselves and their audience, which is no surprise how the Data Scientist sharpens their craft. These pieces, called the “S*Pellbinders” collection, featured maps of not only NYC but also famous cities from around the world – each with its own local flavor and delights. Each is unique, but all share the same technique and approach that makes Data Science so rewarding.


Detail from rivergirl showing the underlying map data supporting and enhancing the final form.




There are many parallels between the approach Sharon took in her work and the work we do as Visualizers and Data Scientists. That said, perhaps it’s too easy for some to dismiss the creative endeavor as completely non-scientific and lacking rigor, and nothing like the science of visualizing data. But, when you look carefully at the thought process and methods we all use to take inspiration and turn it into artifacts, I think you’ll see we are not so different and perhaps all of the above at the same time.



Sharon Pell-Lie

Sharon Pell-Lie

NYC Artist
(1966 – 2011)

Sharon created countless drawings of the storybook characters Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and eventually her favorite female superheroes when she was young. That dedication to craft really paid off in the form of a fashion scholarship to attend Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she studied fashion design, illustration and photography. Sharon lived and worked in Manhattan the rest of her life, exhibiting her latest artwork on the streets of SoHo many weekends, where she sold original pieces to thrilled people from all over the world. Sharon’s work was later discovered by and featured on Tommy Hilfiger t-shirts and Fashion Week commissions.

To learn more about Sharon and see her work


Current Thinking

Drawing the wrong picture

Drawing the wrong picture


bigquoteSometimes you just have to draw the wrong picture to get the right thing to happen.

Let me explain…

There are so many times in business when we are deep into hot debates with others about why doing things this way or that is best, when it becomes clear things are just not going to resolve themselves without someone caving on their opinion. Even presenting “data” to support your position doesn’t always help sway them in some cases.

I’ve found its in those moments where you are completely convicted things should proceed in a particular way (let’s call it “A”) that you have the opportunity to persuade by an unorthodox method – draw the opposing “B” and try to defend it.

And by drawing, I mean whiteboarding, sketching, visualizing, prototyping, coding, acting out, etc. Whatever captures its essential qualities and behavior.

You will probably find that by drawing the other solution “B” yourself, rationale and detail emerge for you that weren’t there before. Seeing from another’s perspective is illuminating. You may even find yourself empathizing with it or even liking it.

But more importantly for the convicted, you have the opportunity to defend “A” without being so overt. Drawing “B” in whatever fidelity will show its weakness to its supporters without you having to beat them over the head with it. The truth lies in the realized version, not the rhetoric and bluster of its proponents.

They’ll see when you draw “the wrong picture” perhaps there was something they missed, not you.

Either way, exploring more than one solution fully is never a bad idea.
They were just wrong ;-)




“Designing for Clarity” – webinar, April 9, for BrightTALK


Thanks to the folks at BrightTALK, I’ll be premiering a new presentation called “Designing for Clarity” via live webinar on April 9, 8am PST.

There’s no place for ambiguity in the modern datacenter. People have increasingly difficult jobs to do, with no time for costly mistakes. When studying workflow, it becomes obvious very quickly that being glanceable, clear and understandable are the keys to efficient display and communication. This talk focuses on lessons learned and best practices for delivering clarity in any of your information displays, visualizations and communications.

See you at the webinar!
Look forward to your questions.




“The Age of Smart Information” – talk @Visualized 2014


World premiere of my talk “The Age of Smart Information” @ VISUALIZED 2014 conference in NYC on February 7th.

Very well received – thank you! Had a blast at the conference.

Watch the video


Careful what you wish for… We’re almost to that place in the history of software and storytelling where visual content has completely surpassed “chrome” and affordances as the most important thing on whatever screen we are currently using. But, in our haste to elevate information over functional elements, our focus has shifted far too often toward beauty over clarity, and coolness over efficiency.

As we use high concept and stunning print layout techniques make our visualizations stand out as novel, clear and beautiful, are we also spending as much effort applying principled interaction design to provide a deeply satisfying engagement model for the content itself? Are we designing a visualization’s interface deliberately or as an afterthought? Is our content’s behavior predictable? Can we have a conversation with it?

Regardless of our individual answers to those questions, there’s a thrilling new language of content interaction being formed by all of us together, each day, intentionally or not. As a community, it’s time to take stock, understand what patterns are effective, see where this is headed next, and most importantly try to teach each other more about how to leverage this emerging behavioral language to be even greater interactive storytellers moving forward.

The demos and heart of the talk challenge the audience to reflect on their own approach to creating interactive visualizations and smart information, and consider how forming and leveraging a principled set of interactions and complementary visual language could help achieve the goal of being clear + beautiful + useful, without compromising the thrill of newness.


Current Thinking

The story behind my Twitter handle

People who aren’t big Southern Rock fans sometimes wonder what my Twitter handle @mryankeeslicker means. Here’s the story…

I grew up in the 1970’s listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and idolizing their lead singer, the late great Ronnie Van Zant. He told the best stories about life on the road as a whiskey rock and roller in the Deep South and their own hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Those songs and stories took me to places and situations I’d never know.

Being from north of the Mason Dixon line, and perhaps a bit more big city than their liking, I always thought if I ever got a chance to meet Ronnie and his band, they’d see me as a “Yankee Slicker” – a fancy talking carpet bagger, not to be trusted, just as he sang about in Workin’ For MCA. That Mr. Yankee Slicker purportedly was none other than the legendary Producer Al Kooper. Good company to keep I say.

So, here’s to ya Ronnie – one more bourbon for road from a Yankee Slicker.


Current Thinking

Mac to the Future. Happy 30th!



Broke out my collection this weekend to have some fun with MacPaint again. It was love at first sight then, and still is today.

here’s what you see pictured:

Mac 512k (1985)
ImageWriter printer
Apple 800k External Floppy Drive
Apple 300 Baud Modem
Complete manuals, cassettes
Original System Disk, MacPaint, MacWrite
MacPaint/MacWrite box and disks
dozens of misc 400k and 800k floppies
“Test Drive a Mac” carrying case

(All in working order :-)

So happy this all stills works after 30 years.

Happy Birthday Mac!