by Infogr.am
Create infographics

Talking with… Jan Willem Tulp

Working at the intersection of technology and design to produce effective visualizations

June 10, 2013
(photo: Jan Willem Tulp)
(photo: Jan Willem Tulp)

“Hi, my name is Jan Willem Tulp, and I create data visualizations.”  That’s how you’re greeted when visiting the about section of Tulp Interactive’s website. It’s a simple, direct way of stating your business, in an industry growing rapidly in competitiveness on a global scale.

Jan’s work, however, it’s differentiated enough not only to survive the ‘explosion’ of infographic and data visualization agencies, but to be recognized by his peers as one of the top names in the field today. Based in The Hague  (The Netherlands) and with a B.Sc. in Interaction Design, “a good sense for aesthetics and a solid foundation in programming”, Jan has been building a strong reputation in the data visualization world, mainly for the quality and diversity of works produced – it’s not often you hear of a data visualization company being awarded at the Malofiej summit, for example.

His work has been featured in books, magazines and exhibitions, and TULP Interactive’s client list includes publications such as Scientific American and PopSci, companies like Schlumberger and Nielsen, and organizations like The World Economic Forum, among others. He defines his work as being somewhere at the intersection of technology and design.

We invited Jan to share his thoughts on a number of topics with us, including his work and career, the current and future state of of data visualization and more.

 

Visual Loop (VL) – Jan, a simple one to start: if you had to recommend three Twitter users to follow by someone who’s about to take their first steps in data visualization, which ones would they be?

Jan Willem Tulp (JWT) – I would say @Infosthetics, @VisualizingOrg and @mbostock.

Infosthetics (@infosthetics) has been around for quite some time, and has by now a very large collection of all kinds of visualization projects from the past few years. If Infosthetics tweets, it’s usually about a new project added to the website. It’s a great resource for inspiration!

Visualizing.org (@VisualizingOrg) is a platform that organizes events and contests for people to get started in data visualization. Before doing data visualization professionally, I entered quite a few competitions at Visualizing.org. It’s a great way to get experience, and exposure not to mention!

Mike Bostock (@mbostock) is the creator of D3 . He has created many, many examples in D3, and he now works for The New York Times, where he also uses D3 for his visualization projects. When he tweets it is quite often about some new example or experiment he has created. Great to get inspired as well, and of course a bunch of fabulous examples!

VL – And how did you start in data visualization – and what made you decide to become a professional in the field?

JWT – I have studied interaction design, and wanted to make a combination of design and technology (software). By that time I was unable to find a job where I could do both. And especially since I had reasonable programming skills, I mostly ended up in programming jobs. But I have switched between very creative companies and very technical companies throughout my career as I was looking for both a technical and a design challenge in my work. Gradually I learned about data visualization, and I became very excited about it. I then decided to spend one day a week for a year to learn and practice data visualization. I felt like for me the combination of design and technology I had been looking for all those years was coming together in data visualization. So, I decided to start my own freelancing business in September 2011. And until today this has been the best decision ever!

VL – You have worked both with big companies and publications. What are the most common challenges you face when producing visualizations for these two types of client? Or is it the same approach altogether?

JWT – What most of my clients share is that I usually deal with a small group of people, not an entire company. And also, these people are usually very excited about visualization, so that is something that really helps. A difference can be that for a big company you might create something, like a tool that will be used internally. In situations like these you can actually do some more end-user testing than what you can usually do for a large audience or for a magazine.

Of course, the client will give feedback as well, but they are not always the end user. So far my experience is also that for publication the turnaround times are usually shorter and the projects are in general smaller.

VL – In fact, the work you’ve done for Scientific American Magazine was awarded at the Malofiej 21, right? How great was it to be recognized by such an elite group of visual journalists?

JWT – That was really amazing! I honestly did not expect it. It’s already a great compliment if a client considers your work worthy enough to submit it to a competition like Malofiej, but being awarded medals was beyond my expectation. And yes, Malofiej judges are really top notch, so I still am very humbled and excited!

VL – That experience must have given you the opportunity to analyse how the media industry (including scientific publications) is dealing with the consumption of news in new devices, like tablets and smartphones. In terms of data visualization, do you have any suggestions – or even advises – for newsrooms across the world, facing the transition from Print to Digital?

JWT – Well, I was in the online jury, and to be honest, there were only a few entries that were on iPad or iPhone, but most of them were just desktop. So, it’s either still very difficult to produces something for multiple devices, or it’s not feasible to do so, or people preferred to submit the desktop version of the mobile version.

One thing to consider with all new kinds of devices is truly making use of the potential of the device. Smartphones and tablets allow you to swipe, pinch and zoom for instance, which is something most people don’t do on their desktop or laptop. So, there is really a big opportunity to come up with interesting interactions that make use of the potential of a device.

A challenge in general is making a visualization work on different screen (and aspect ratios). With responsive web design I feel that it is easier to move around or scale text, images and input fields than you could do with a visualization. Quite often visualizations have a more advanced interaction model where you can directly manipulate a visualization, or at least you want to see the result of your interaction directly. Once you have to deal with different screen sizes and aspect ratios, it will have effect on the visualization and how you interact with it.

One thing to consider with all new kinds of devices is truly making use of the potential of the device. Smartphones and tablets allow you to swipe, pinch and zoom for instance, which is something most people don’t do on their desktop or laptop. So, there is really a big opportunity to come up with interesting interactions that make use of the potential of a device.

VL – And now, a new gadget that is much more than a gadget. What do you think about Google Glass and if this could to be the type of device that may have an immediate impact in the field of data visualization?

JWT – Good questions! I think as mentioned above, it will also have challenges to make the same visualization work on Glass as well, and at the same time it will have potential to do things that are not possible right now just by the nature of the device.

But at the same time I think a device is not the only thing that is required to have an impact. If you look at the impact D3, the javascript visualization framework currently has, that is enormous. People should find it easy to make something for Glass. But I think that something like  the Immaterials WIFI light painting project  could be nicely adapted for Glass: literally see where your strongest WIFI connection is would be nice.

A device is not the only thing that is required to have an impact. If you look at the impact D3, the javascript visualization framework, currently has, that is enormous. People should find it easy to make something for Glass.

VL – Apart from hardware, what are the major developments in the software/coding front that we should be paying attention?

JWT – Obviously, D3 is really hot at the moment. I also think that abstractions on top of libraries like D3 will become more common, like Vega, which will enable people who are less proficient in programming to create visualization. And it’s also a great way for tool building. And that’s probably something else you’ll see more in the future, tools to create visualization. But in general I think the web-based visualization tools and frameworks will become the standard, if they’re not already.

VL – What other trends do you believe to be crucial for the development of data visualization in the next ten, fifteen years?

JWT – I think good education is one thing. In The Netherlands, colleges start offering minors in data visualization, but it would be even more great if it were a major in data visualization. There are many aspects to creating a good visualization, and especially if you want to master that, it would be good if there were majors for that in colleges (I’m not talking about scientific research on visualization, which is actually pretty good in The Netherlands!).

Something else I would like to see more is the cross pollination of science and industry. It seems like these are two separate worlds, but I think they both can learn a lot from each other. There are already some steps towards that direction, for instance IEEE VizWeek has an Industry and Government track. So, there is also progress there already!

I would like to see more is the cross pollination of science and industry. It seems like these are two separate worlds, but I think they both can learn a lot from each other.

VL – Moving back to the present, it has been a great to feature some visualization projects here on Visual Loop from students and young professionals from The Netherlands. Can you share your thoughts about the data visualization scene there?

JWT – There is a growing interest in data visualization in The Netherlands for sure. There are a few colleges that start a minor data visualization this year, so that’s good! Also, there are some events and meetups where data visualization also plays a role. So, it is growing. At the same time, I think the community of professionals, especially freelancers or specialized data visualization design agencies, is very very small. There are some more infographic designers, but still, it’s not that big.

Sometimes I’m jealous with people living in the Bay Area where they have very large data visualization communities. But, with the current trend, I am quite positive that data visualization will become bigger in The Netherlands as in many other countries.

VL – One of your recent works was related to Brazil, isn’t that so? What can you share with our Brazilian audience about that work?

JWT – Yes, Program Biosfera is about a roadmap for a sustainable economy in Brazil based on bamboo. It turns out that bamboo is an extremely good source material to create a closed loop sustainable ecosystem and economy. So, the initiator of this program contacted me to create a visualization that compares a linear scenario (using bamboo, but not using it’s waste) and a circular scenario (a closed loop system using bamboo) with the current scenario where no bamboo is used. And according to the data the circular scenario will outperform the other scenarios in most cases in different result areas.

This visualization has been created in an extremely short turnover time, because the initiator of the program wanted to use the visualization to support his story during a seminar here in The Netherlands.

VL – Jan, any last comments – some new project or anything else on the way?

JWT – Several things yes. First, my exoplanets visualization I did for Scientific American has had a small update as more planets have been discovered, so that will be published soon. I can’t tell about all the projects, but one of them is a personal project, where I have an idea which I haven’t seen before, and I have to test it out if it will work, but if it will, it will be cool! I know, that sounds vague, but I don’t want to spoil everything! For that project I am trying three.js for a change.

VL – Thank you so much, Jan!

JWT -Thank you!!

 

We really appreciate that Jan took his time to send us these answers. You can follow his updates on Twitter, and don’t forget to also visit TULP Interactive for more of his work.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

Follow: