Building understanding of the world

I watched a talk by Paula Zuccotti about her project, “Everything we Touch”, and I couldn’t help but see it as a really neat data visualization. If you haven’t seen it, here it the talk at an AIGA conference:

But stopping at “really neat data visualization” reminds me of the builder who thinks everything is a nail, because they only work with a hammer. (This concept, I learned today, is called the “law of the instrument“.) It doesn’t fully capture how I felt about the project.

I don’t have the book, yet, but I think the talk gives us a good understanding of what the project is about. I consider this presentation of the work a visualization because Paula takes “data” (in the form of all the objects a person touches in a 24-hour period; and then all the people she worked with) and presents it to an audience (in the form of the book, and this talk) in a way that allows them to digest it and gain some understanding about the world is.

She talks about the people who own these items through anecdotes they shared with her, and observations she made. One anecdote that stayed with me was about Anna, a two-year old toddler who was playing with medicine pots during bath-time, because to her they didn’t look any different from her toys in terms of colors. It made me think about how we use color to give meaning to our surroundings and how we can better use it to signal that two types of objects (like medicine pots and toys) should be approached differently.

Thinking about how neat the chronological layouts of the objects were reminded me of a project I did at the very beginning of grad school: photographing the things inside my grandfather’s briefcase. My mom’s dad died when I was three, and I have kept a briefcase of his full of his different objects: ink stamps he used that have deformed over the years, receipts, small square photos, his old social security cards, his domino club ID, his night school card. Growing up, I have used my growing understanding of these objects (I didn’t know what a social security card was or what it was used for, or what night school was, when I was in elementary school) along with the stories my mom has told me, to build a picture of what my grandfather was like. Paula’s project does something very similar: it helps us build pictures of these people through combining the anecdotes Paula shares with a catalog of every thing they touched over the course of a day. And I think this is really awesome.

When I introduce myself, I often point out that I want to “make information useful.” By this I generally mean that no matter what area I work in, I want to create things that help people build a better understanding of the world. Recently, that has meant looking at documents and tables and creating charts and graphs to help explain something. Paula’s project “Every Thing We Touch”, reminds me that there are other ways to help building understanding of the world.

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