Nicholas Felton should already be well-known for the avid infosthetics reader. He is a graphic designer from New York and probably best known for his unique personal annual reports, but is also co-founder of daytum.com, a dedicated website for tracking and communicating life-logging data, while having produced an impressive body of freelance information design work in his portfolio.
When he was announced as one of the speakers for the See #5 conference in Wiesbaden, I immediately thought of trying to get a hold of him for an interview. Unfortunately, a selfish volcano made a face-to-face meeting impossible, so the following interview was conducted via e-mail. How does Nicholas typically work? What is the role of aesthetics in his work? And is *he* the cause of all those terrible junk charts some people are so passionately mad about?
Your annual reports have many facets. One thing that makes them particularly interesting to me is that they encompass components of research, design and art. Do you think in terms of these categories? How would you classify your reports yourself?
While I don't frame the report in those exact terms, they are all a part of the process. Research and design are core parts of the equation, while the art world provides inspiration. I'm influenced by artists who elevate every-day objects and events to prominence through their meticulous processes, like Sophie Calle, Candy Jernigan and Mark Dion.
Can you tell us a bit about your design process? Do you do much by hand, or mostly graphic programs, or do you code as well? What is a typical workflow?
Typically, I like to start by determining the simplest way to communicate the data I've been given. Things get complicated very quickly, so there's no use in starting with a complex base visualization layer if it needs to have numerous labels or additional dimensions of data applied.
I was drawing manually in Illustrator at this time last year, but I have started to dabble in Processing (the language developed by Casey Reas and Ben Fry) to help speed my work. Over the past few months I've developed a little arsenal of graphing tools to help automate my process. With considerable assistance, I've been able to build geocoding, geoplotting and several other graphing applications that quickly allow me see the shape of the data I'm working with. I can then take the PDF output and style it with either Adobe Illustrator or InDesign.
I usually present only one direction to a client, when it's starting to take shape. The way I work allows the structure of the data to determine the composition of the execution, so sketches are rarely indicative of the final outcome.
Obviously, visual aesthetics plays a big role in your work. Sometimes, aesthetics can help in transporting a story, but in other case it might overshadow the data. Do you find it difficult to deal with this tension? What do you do to resolve it?
I like to think that my aesthetic choices are always made in service of the data and the story. All the reductions in typographic and chromatic palette are intended to place contrasts in the most effective locations. In my personal projects there are times where I like to push an aesthetic idea further than I would for a client, but I believe that the data relationships still shine through.
We have seen a boom of illustrative infographics over the last few months and years. I think - at least from a visual design point of view - your reports were a major influence for graphics like for instance "Unboxing the iPad". Not all of them are great, which leads some people to critique them quite strongly or even make parodies of this style of infographics. Are you sorry for what you have (co-)caused?
I hope that I'm not entirely to blame for this, but yes, it's becoming a problem. When I entered the field, I was operating against a tendency towards too much information and not enough insight. Visualizations for complexity's sake. Now the needle seems to be tipping in the other direction towards visualizations that are unrooted in any data whatsoever. The larger issue for me is that none of these projects endeavor to answer a question or provide insight.
People used to write diaries to keep track of their lives, and reflect. How does your work relate to this practice?
I believe that it's a piece of that world. My mother has kept a diary for at least the last 50 years, so perhaps there's a piece of that in me. I'm also transfixed by the passports of my father that contain another 50 years of extensive travels in a more structured form. I've experimented with travelogues, and other extrapolations of my activities into books or websites. For me, the difference is that I've approached my everyday activities as a source of content for driving design projects, while the bulk of diaries are intended for personal consumption.
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg says "the age of privacy is over". Do you support this particular view?
I think it would be more accurate to say that the age of the illusion of privacy is over. Your activities have long been transparent to credit card, mobile phone operators and others... now we have been given the tools to reveal this information socially (intentionally or unintentionally).
I might add, that while I reveal an incredible amount about my habits in my reports, the information is edited, and activities are rarely more date specific than the year in which they occurred. For me this provides an acceptable degree of privacy and remove that is downright reserved in the age of tweeting that you're at the local bar.
Are there things you would never publish in your reports?
Definitely. I avoid sexual and scatological reporting, and find most monetary reporting offputting.
As far as you can judge - has logging and analysing your life made you change your habits? If so, to the better or to the worse?
In some areas it has. Keeping track of my running helps keep me connected to that activity and gives me goals and a way to measure my progress. In other areas, it hasn't had as much of an impact. When I've tried to keep track of my reading in an effort to increase my consumption of books, I found that it didn't have an impact. How much I read is determined by how often I find books that engage me. Ultimately, my life tracking is more about recording and preserving my activities than in changing my behavior.
Do you think in 20 years, everybody will keep track of their (mostly auto-generated) personal Feltron report? Will doctors first review your habit and life statistics before they treat you?
Absolutely, I think that most of the things I track today will be ambiently available to anyone who's interested in 5, 10 or 20 years. With flexible hardware like the iPhone, better battery life, pervasive sensors and id chips, background processes and participatory corporations that realize the value of giving their customers access to the data they create - we'll be most of the way there.