/ Form Follows Data: How Jer Thorp Transforms Data into Art

Visualizing information is a practice that’s far from new. After all, Galileo and Da Vinci were arguably some of history’s best data artists.

When it comes to turning information into art, Jer Thorp is a pioneer in the field of data visualization. We’re pleased to announce that Thorp will be speaking at Domopalooza next month about finding the human stories in data.

Jer Thorp is an award-winning data artist, researcher and thinker. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as National Geographic and the New York Times and exhibitions at the MoMA in Manhattan.

With a background in genetics, Thorp says that his digital art tends to explore the “many-folded boundaries” that exist between science and art. One of his most well-known visualization pieces, 138 Years of Popular Science, showed how different scientific and cultural terms have come in and out of use in the magazine.

As the former Data Artist in Residence (a title he says he invented for himself) at the NYT, Thorp’s work focuses on adding narrative to huge amounts of data in order to help people take control of information. During his time at the NYT R&D lab, Thorp developed Cascade, a tool that constructs a detailed picture of how information moves through the social media space.

When he sets out to create a piece of data visualization, Thorp says that his first responsibility is to preserve the integrity of the data set.

“Each data set has its own unique character, and that’s one of the things that I always think about when I’m working: ‘How can you embrace the character of this data set?'”

Form follows function has been the motto of modernist architecture and design for decades. Thorp’s approach to visualizing data embodies a new dictum for a new age: Form follows data.

Thorp says that he takes a ‘data first’ approach, where he doesn’t start with an idea of what he wants the visual to look like. Instead, the data dictates the design.

Thorp is the co-founder of the Office for Creative Research, a multi-disciplinary research group that explores new ways of engaging with data. The group aims to solve complex problems with data by borrowing principles from both science and the humanities.

That intersection is a critical component of Thorp’s visualization projects. In interviews, he talks about blurring the boundaries that exist between art and science.

“Science and design don’t touch the way they should be touching,” writes Thorp in an interview. “So that’s one of the things that I’m really interested in – using art as an axis to bring those two things together.”

In his TED talk, Thorp argues that we need to find new modes of engaging with data that reveal the human story that is embedded in the data set.

“Design has a really interesting role of bridging that gap and making data more human,” he says. “In my work I’m really thinking about how we can give people glimpses into that type of future.”

Thorp’s interdisciplinary way of thinking about the world extends to the types of projects he pursues. In addition to working on his own research, Thorp also teaches at New York University’s ITP program and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Design & Innovation.

So what’s next for Thorp? He has a few innovative new projects in the pipeline. Most notably, he’s been developing a tool called Floodwatch, a free Chrome browser extension that shows Internet users how advertisers are tracking their online behavior.

By working at the intersection of science, art and design, Thorp is transforming the types of stories we tell about the world – and how we tell them.

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