The Portuguese and New York based Manuel Lima is, without question, a global reference, when it comes to data visualization. This Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts was nominated by Creativity magazine as “one of the 50 most creative and influential minds of 2009″, and his work with Visual Complexity is both inspiring and fascinating.
Today, he’s a Senior UX Design Lead at Microsoft. Prior to that, Manuel worked as a Senior User Experience Designer at Nokia and Senior Interaction Designer at the digital agency R/GA. He holds a BFA in Industrial Design and a MFA in Design & Technology from Parsons School of Design, and during the course of the MFA program, he spent some time working for Siemens Corporate Research Center, the American Museum of Moving Image and Parsons Institute for Information Mapping in research projects for the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency.
He’s a familiar face in data visualization events, appearing regularly as a speaker, and in 2011 published the book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information – offering simultaneously an historical reference guide and a record of contemporary data visualization examples.
Manuel was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work, data visualization and Visual Complexity:
Visual Loop (VL) – How did you become interested in data visualization?
Manuel Lima (ML) – My interest began when I was doing my Masters in Parsons School of Design, New York. At the time, I remember a teacher showing us an interesting diagram called the “Understanding Spectrum”, where data is transformed into information, which becomes knowledge and finally wisdom. From that point, I felt a strong desire to contribute to this transformation, particularly in the transition from information to knowledge.
VL – Visual Complexity was a natural consequence of that interest. But did you imagine that it would become a world reference in the subject?
ML – I hadn’t the faintest idea. The website began as an attempt to catalog the various projects studied during my master’s thesis and index others that I was discovering, thus serving as a personal database, a mnemonic tool that would allow me to easily reference a growing number of initiatives in this area.
VL – And after the site, a book, in which you present an historical context of the systematic organization of information since the dawn of civilization to the hyper-connected days of today. Tell us a bit about why you decided to publish ‘Visualizing Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information’.
ML – While indexing hundreds of network visualization projects in areas as diverse as biology, sociology, or Internet, several patterns have emerged naturally, and at a certain point I realized that much of this material could form a book. But in addition to show this new world to a broad section of society, one of the key objectives of the book was to preserve many of these projects for posterity.
VL – In fact, one of the most interesting points you mention in the book’s introduction is the question of the volatility of some of the projects that simply ‘disappeared’ from the Internet. Is there a particular project you regret having seen disappear and intended to include in the book?
ML – Yes, this is a widespread phenomenon that goes beyond the area of information visualization. The concept of the Digital Dark Age defines a hypothetical time in the future when we will be unable to read and interpret most digital cultural artifacts produced today. This is a daunting scenario, which I faced during the production of the book. Incredibly, it was sometimes easier to collect an illustration produced in the Middle Ages than a visualization produced in the last decade. It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific project but recently, when I was researching from my second book, I discovered that Ecotonoha, a ecological data visualization produced by Yugo Nakamura in 2004, was unfortunately discontinued.
The concept of the Digital Dark Age defines a hypothetical time in the future when we will be unable to read and interpret most digital cultural artifacts produced today.
VL – When we talk about data visualization with people who are outside the field, sometimes they feel some difficulties in the practical understanding of this form of communication. How would you explain to a layman the importance of data visualization?
ML – The visualization of information is not something completely revolutionary. For centuries humans have represented and displayed different aspects of information and knowledge. But now, more than any other time in history, data visualization has become a vital tool for understanding, in the attempt to uncover numerous congruent patterns among a growing avalanche of data.
VL – Being a regular at major events related to the universe of information visualization, you have had the opportunity to interact with professionals and academics from different cultural backgrounds. What is your reading of the state of information visualization in the world today?
ML – The field has undergone a huge expansion in recent years, covering a growing number of professionals from various areas of expertise. This explosion has been extremely beneficial, as it has brought a lot of visibility to the field. But if we want this popularity to be more than a temporary trend, data visualization has to mature and develop a critical eye on its own performance, functionality, and influence.
If we want this popularity to be more than a temporary trend, data visualization has to mature and develop a critical eye on its own performance, functionality, and influence.
VL – And what about the future? What are the main technological and social innovations that will mark the field of information visualization the coming years?
ML – It will be interesting to see how the field will spread and cover other parallel emerging technologies, including the phenomenon of ubiquitous computing, in the creation of multisensory and immersive experiences that go beyond the computer monitor. I envision a future in which large amounts of useful information will be less intrusive and increasingly integrated into everyday objects and surfaces.
I envision a future in which large amounts of useful information will be less intrusive and increasingly integrated into everyday objects and surfaces.
VL – In closing, any particular project you’re involved and care to share with us?
ML – I am currently finishing my second book, to be published by Princeton Architectural Press early next year, and I’m teaching at Parsons School of Design, in New York. I recently had the opportunity to collaborate in an interesting visualization project with Microsoft Research. Although still in development, Viral Search is a visualization tool that allows us to analyze patterns of information propagation within Twitter, as well as analyze the most popular or viral topics.
VL – Thank you so much, Manuel!
ML – Thank you!