Design by Numbers: How Creative and Data Complement Each Other

The latter half of the 19th century was a radical time in the art world. The Impressionism movement was in full swing, led by Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Mary Cassatt. Then in the 1880s, a side movement sprang up known as Pointillism.

The most famous example of Pointillism is “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges-Pierre Seurat. The title may mean nothing to you, but perhaps the description rings a bell: families from various classes, dressed in formal attire, stand on the bank of the Seine in Paris. If you look closely, you can see the painting is actually made of thousands of tiny dots.

No one was using the word “pixel” in the 1880s, but it’s interesting to think of Seurat’s painting as a precursor to digital design. The graphics on our computer screens, televisions, monitors of all types are made of tens of thousands of individual colored points that together form images we recognize.

It’s all about the big picture.

I think of data in a similar way. Together individual data form a collective whole: a concept, a point of view, a starting point. Data become the basis for strategy and communication. They are the Pointillism of the digital medium.

Many think that data and design are like oil and water; the two just don’t mix. But in the agency and marketing worlds, that just doesn’t work. Data can — and must — inform design, and vice versa. And no one knows that better than Jon McVey, our agency’s executive creative director.

During his prolific design career, McVey has worked in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and all over the United States on campaigns for Encyclopaedia Britannica, Apple, Sony, Converse, National Geographic, Tazo, Façonnable, Morgans Hotel Group, and many other clients.

His experience and perspective speak directly to the use of data in design, so I decided to pose a few questions to him on that topic.

Shane Atchison: What does data look like to a creative director in a corporate organization?

Jon McVey: Data itself is meaningless. But data grants insight, and it is only with insight that we can create something meaningful. We live at a time where the sheer volume of available data is overwhelming and increasing exponentially. Too much data is just as debilitating as no data at all.

SA: How does creative work with data?

JM: The role of the creative is critical: to be able to distill and make sense of this information and turn it into ideas and objects that people can relate to and understand. There are massive technological and societal shifts happening, and there is a huge role for the designer to play as an intermediary between data and culture. To become what Paola Antonelli of MOMA calls “society’s new pragmatic intellectuals.”

SA: Let’s talk about analysis. Aren’t numbers more concrete than intuition?

JM: Numbers alone never create meaning, and intuition alone can be just as worthless. The ideal is the integration of the two. My favorite car analogy is the Ford Edsel, which attempted all kinds of design innovations but became one of the biggest corporate failures because creative didn’t pay attention to the numbers.

SA: In what ways does data allow creative to take risks?

JM:Data in its many forms can absolutely validate an idea that might seem risky to a client. Beyond the insights we can gain from data, prototyping and iterative testing can be huge allies for the creative process. For everyone involved it can provide a very real sense of whether a concept will work in the real world. We are just as invested as the client in that success.

SA: Getting back to art, could analytics be run on the “Mona Lisa”?

JM: Leonardo da Vinci is one of the first visionaries who dreamt of a future where design and science would be intertwined. There are so many ways we could measure human reaction to the “Mona Lisa” or deconstruct the artist’s masterful technique. But what this painting also represents to me is the immeasurable power of art to connect with and emotionally captivate people. It’s the ultimate reminder that people want more than just logic.

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