Information design:
in practice, an informed theory

InformForm is an international platform for information design, which celebrates and explores both practical and theoretical experimentation within the field of design. It prides itself on showcasing relevant examples of work by students, for students. Read More

Interview: Santiago Ortiz

by InformForm

History Words Flow – words flow in Wikipedia articles about years, decades, centuries and millennia

You “invent and develop algorithms, visualisation methods, interactive narratives and new ideas for internet”. This doesn’t sound like you have a straightforward background in design. What has led you to where you are, and what you do now?

I don’t have a background in design, and I don’t consider myself a good designer, at least under a conventional definition of what a designer knows and does. That means I could (and I have) worked with designers, and if the collaborations flow, there could be a lot of synergy. On the other hand, some of my projects or at least parts of them generate images out of data. The design is algorithmically driven, and thus, in this specific context, I’m a good designer. For example: In Newk, which is a visualisation of a network of conversations, the layout of nodes and relations (the central part) is the way I want it to be. I would not ask for the help of a designer to improve this interactive environment. But the panels on the right are poorly designed. They are decent, but could be much better. I’d like to work with a UI/UX designer to improve this part of the project.

For six months you didn’t accept any client work and created a diverse range of projects and experiments. There was the exploration of a non-linear novel, particle collisions and new ways to navigate a histomap of World History. What was the catalyst for this period, and how do you look back on it now?

“For a period of six months you didn’t accept client work” Well, that’s not exactly the case, as I didn’t get any offers too! It all started when I left the company (Bestiario) I co-founded in Spain, and no one knew I was in the market. Instead of trying to get opportunities quickly, I spent these six months building my creative and freelancing business platform. I spent time in a small village in rural Argentina and so business opportunities were far away. In this period of time, I created more than 10 projects, all driven by curiosity and pleasure. I wanted to enjoy the process and find answers to three fundamental questions. What do I want to do? What am I good at? Within my work, what has social meaning? After this I started building some visualisation of things I’m interested in: stars, books, stories, history and knowledge.

The ways a data set can be visualised is infinite, depending on the space (albeit a fraction of these visualisations would perhaps be considered successful and relevant to the data). Considering your mathematical background, particularly topology and geometry, what opportunities do the words ‘infinity’ and ‘space’ bring? How do they impact your choices?

Infinity: languages take advantage of combinatory: by combining a finite set of elements (a code) we can describe a potential infinite of realities. Information visualisation is a language that is just being discovered and created, we don’t fully understand it and we can’t enlist the elements that conform to the code, but we know that whatever these elements are, they can be combined. Steve Deutsch’s book Beginning of Infinity describes multiple ways that infinity is realised. In order to make a case for the potential for combining information visualisation, and as a way to explore code we don’t yet comprehend, I took two numbers. These were 37 and 75, and I tried to find all the ways this minimal set of data could be visualised, and I found a lot. Space: I use this rather vague term frequently. It implies that the person that interacts, moves and explores has a location and direction. An interactive entity can be an object if you can manipulate it, or it can be a space if you can navigate it, but it also could be a combination of both. Take the case of network visualisation: the complete network visualised, with all its nodes and relations (aka hairball), is an object; on the other hand, a local view of the network that allows you to move from node to node following relations, is a space. Both views and interaction rules have different advantages and limitations. I’ve been researching interactive interfaces that treat networks as objects and spaces, such as the aforementioned project, Newk. Here you can shift from local to global views, and vice versa, in a continuous way.

Interactivity plays an important role in your work. Interactivity can be used to expose relationships, highlight detail, and create different vantage points. It can give more choice, opportunity and responsibility to the user. What does interactivity mean to you?

Think of all the rich interactions found in genes, proteins and hormones in the molecular level, neurons in a cell level, individuals of the same or different species, communities, species, and ecosystems. All those systems are networks of dynamic interchange of information, requiring a huge variety of technologies and use an unimaginable number of interfaces that facilitate information exchange. On the other hand, interaction design is an extremely narrow field, at least for the time being. As in the case of information visualisation, we have just started to explore how our body and mind can interact with artificial systems. One of the reasons this field is still narrow is that a lot of the research is being done by very specific part of the population (the WEIRD people). I don’t have any academic background in user interaction. What I have is experience and many lessons learned from errors (failure as a learning driver). I’ve also learned a lot from people. I’ve collaborated. As previously mentioned I can team with designers and create work that balances conventional and experimental.

You could say that to be capable of success you need to be capable of failure, and most importantly be able to be reflective of this. What place does failure have in your work, particularly in process and experiments?

I should start by saying I’ve made so many errors. Many of them I expect not to repeat, and by not repeating errors you start being ‘good’ at something. It’s universal that humans learn from errors. What may be different, according to people, and also to the culture, is how we manage failure, both in emotional and business terms. In the U.S. there’s this idea that failure is, somehow, good. You don’t succeed if you don’t fail several times before. So being a failurepreneur means that you’re on the way to success. Nowadays there are hundreds of talks about failure, to some extent the more spectacular your failure the better. I gave a recent talk in which I featured several projects that didn’t work the way I expected. And I do see huge differences in how failure is managed in Latin America, Europe and the U.S. It’s true that in the U.S, failing is not seen as dramatically. It’s not a stereotype that several failed projects may anticipate a successful one: it actually happens. Having failed in a project is not a burden or a stigma (as it is in Europe and Latin America). I’m an experimenter that creates things and learns by trial/error processes. I really appreciate the tolerance and the propensity to learn from errors in the U.S. business/technology culture.

Here at InformForm we are of the belief that learning never stops. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned since you started your career?

Learning happens in many fields and scales, and in the realms of the conscious and the unconscious. The later type could be called intuitive learning. For programmers this means coding faster, with less errors and keeping the code clean and well-structured without a huge effort. Things flow… You can learn ways to learn faster and better. This would be the opposite of intuitive learning because is about being conscious about how do you learn. What have I learned so far? I’ve learned the importance of helping the brain creating new connections by reading about very diverse subjects. This led me to store and organise ideas, references, quotes, eventually developing tools for this process. However, the most important type of learning is one that enriches intuition.

Finally do you have any advice for students studying right now?

I’ll skip the new era kind of advice about risks and persistence (not that I don’t believe in them, the fact they became clichés doesn’t mean they became false) and focus on something more pragmatic. My piece of advice is: keep two records, one about your ideas, and the other about your research. Keep them well documented, tagged and in general metadata-ed. The result is a priceless source of knowledge, creativity, serendipity and learning via discovering new connections.

Posted in Articles
July 15, 2015
1500 words & 5 images

Views of the Sky – series of simple visualisations based on star data

7 sets Venn Diagram – 128 color combinations from mixing 7 colours

Newk - a browser based application for Networks Visualisation

Histomap Revisited – a new way of navigating the World History histomap from 1931

Latest articles sorted by date title length