On Point

Visiting designer Nicholas Felton 99 GD leads a three-day workshop on data design for juniors in Graphic Design.

Visiting designer Nicholas Felton 99 GD leads a three-day workshop with juniors in Graphic Design.

“No one should know more about you than you know about yourself,” information designer Nicholas Felton 99 GD routinely points out. That’s one of the motivations behind his Personal Annual Reports, a groundbreaking body of work spanning 10 years in which he meticulously tracked his daily routines—how many beers he drank, who he spoke to and what was said, what music he listened to, what time he woke in the morning and went to bed at night—and then aggregated the data into well-designed year-at-a-glance reports.

“I’m inspired by the beauty I see in the composition of natural forms to visually experiment with data,” Felton told students who came to hear him speak in the RISD Auditorium in late October. The information specialist, who was also a principal designer of Facebook’s timeline, was on campus to lead a three-day workshop on data design, working with juniors in Graphic Design.

“These students are all new to the aesthetic visual language of information design,” explains Graphic Design Professor Lucinda Hitchcock, who is co-teaching the intensive Design Studio 3 core track with Assistant Professor Paul Soulellis, Professor Hammett Nurosi and Critic Jacek Mrowczyk. The newly revised curriculum focuses on inquiry, experimentation and discovery, with a series of question-based units designed to build on one another.

For Felton’s workshop—“a breath of fresh air,” according to Hitchcock—students worked together in small teams to analyze a section of the Sunday New York Times and then condense the content into a one-page graphic report demonstrating whatever editorial point of view they chose. One team focused on the dearth of female reporters and photographers contributing to the sports section, another on how much skin is revealed in the style section and a third on the race and gender of bestselling authors covered in the books section. First students presented their draft reports for initial feedback, and then they quickly made revisions before the entire group of approximately 75 juniors came together to analyze the work on-screen.

“Your color key needs to be consistent,” Hitchcock advised a student during interim crits. “Remember to follow the rules you’ve created.”

“There’s a bit of a legibility issue here,” Felton noted in a classroom down the hall. “It’s cool to experiment with forms, but the graphic needs to have visual integrity.”

As part of a team that analyzed the style section, Philip Glenn 17 GD focused on how much space was devoted to various items—eyeglasses, neckties, dogs—and then presented the data using virtually no text at all. “We scanned everything in to accurately measure the content,” he explains. “Creating infographics is far more technical in practice than [I expected] but the techniques we’ve used to solve problems and generate ideas over the past three semesters really came into play this week.”

Although students looked wiped out by the time final crits rolled around, Felton and the faculty team were visibly energized by their work. “This is a great snapshot of where you all are,” said Soulellis. And Hitchcock agreed, exclaiming, “Now we have proof that the type curriculum is working. Nothing you’ve made looks like you were raised by wolves!”

“As a group, the class really pushed the boundaries with this assignment,” noted Felton. “Some used no text, others only text; some created the report digitally, and others handled the materials by hand. It’s interesting to see things I’ve never tried showing up in these graphics.”

“The takeaway,” Soulellis added, “is that the decisions you make as a graphic designer affect the story you’re telling about the data. You’re really learning to take point of view to the next level.”

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