The Relentless Lisa Strausfeld

We interface with the award-winning information designer, who explains how her radical approach to data visualization incorporates real space and cyberspace

When Jim Clifton, chief executive of the Gallup Organization, the Washington management consulting firm known for its public opinion polls, wanted to hire "the Tiger Woods of data visualization," one name kept coming up: Lisa Strausfeld. "We did our own [unofficial] Gallup Poll," says Clifton. "With everyone we asked about Lisa, the agreement was so high. Everyone said she's the best." So, in June, 2006, the 42-year-old Pentagram partner was hired to consult as a senior scientist at Gallup. Strausfeld's redesign of Gallup's Web site will go live in September and will feature Strausfeld's data visualizations for the Gallup World Poll, which surveys residents of dozens of nations with timely questions such as "Would you vote for a female president?" The World Poll also offers rare statistical snapshots of war-torn regions, as Gallup regularly gathers data from people in areas such as the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Clifton says the company was looking to create a site that would have the exciting graphics of and the gravitas of the White House's home page. "We also wanted it to be compelling and authoritative enough to attract everyone to it—similar to a Bloomberg screen," Clifton says. While that combination of disparate requirements might strike many designers as almost impossible to achieve, Strausfeld saw the multifaceted brief not only as a challenge, but as one that drew upon her own experience and interests.

'Media-Agnostic' Design

The reference to Bloomberg is fitting. In 2006, Pentagram won a Gold Industrial Design Excellence Award for Environments for its design of the media company's Manhattan headquarters, which featured dramatic information displays. The giant screens Strausfeld and her team designed feature live feeds of financial updates straight from the company's resources. They're a clear demonstration of Strausfeld's ability to transform digital information—usually consumed alone at a PC—into a public, architectural experience.

"I've always been interested in investigating structure, in architecture, software, information design—and the ways they connect," Strausfeld says one recent Tuesday as we sit in one of the meeting rooms in Pentagram's buzzing Manhattan offices. "From my teaching [at Yale and New York University] and work, I've observed a transition to a 'media-agnostic' approach to design. Mastery in design used to be medium-specific," she continues. "Now mastery can cut across different media. To say this stemmed from 'digital culture' would be accurate but too general. The optimal ways for organizing information, for example, are becoming universal." In other words, computer programs that allow us to archive, sort, search, and share data have infiltrated nearly every discipline, from the world of the architect to the world of the Web designer. Why not, Strausfeld seems to posit in her own genre-blending portfolio, apply what works in one arena to another?

Strausfeld's own evolution as a designer is reflected in her résumé. As an undergraduate at Brown University, she studied both art history and computer science. And she's armed with two master's degrees, one in architecture from Harvard University, the other in media arts and sciences from MIT's Media Lab. At MIT, Strausfeld first used the Silicon Graphics computers that were capable of rendering information on-screen in three-dimensional "spaces," rather than as flat spreadsheets or graphs. In 1996, along with classmates from MIT, she co-founded Perspecta, a startup that made visual user-interfaces for large databases for companies such as Encyclopedia Britannica and Merrill Lynch (MER).

After Excite@Home acquired Perspecta in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, Strausfeld joined Quokka Sports, a Web site that offered sports content and video, where she worked as research director and devised ways to visualize sports scores online in real time. The company folded in the early 2000s, when the dot-com bubble burst, and Strausfeld began consulting with Pentagram. In 2002, she was asked to join the firm as a partner—the first to specialize in interactive design.

Sweetening the Laptop Experience

Strausfeld is in demand for her visionary approach to interface design. Her Pentagram team's latest high-profile project is Sugar, created for the One Laptop Per Child/XO computer initiative developed by Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and former director of MIT's Media Lab. Sugar provides a radical departure from the desktop metaphor that personal computers have relied on for more than 20 years. Instead of using corporate or university icons such as sheets of paper or file folders, Sugar centers instead around a simple, stick-figure-like icon. This simple, hieroglyphic graphic represents the person using the device, who's notably absent from the previous desktop metaphor. A child using the computer—a compact, white-and-green device designed by Yves Béhar and Fuse Project—can zoom in or out, and see himself in the context of his online network. It's a more dynamic way of navigation than clicking on a flat rendering of a manila folder or maneuvering a cursor's abstract arrow toward a Web browser's static icon.

"To us, the obvious consequence of representing the presence of other users was to make the overall laptop UI [user interface] reference the physical world," Strausfeld says, explaining the design strategy behind the key networking aspect of the computer.

"We had a more [three-]dimensional visual design at first, but the flat graphic language has more universal references," she continues. "We also wanted to reserve the computer's resources for tasks other than rendering complex dimensional graphics." This aspect of the design strategy was key, as XO is intended to work without relying on energy that might not be readily available in developing nations or rural communities without a sophisticated infrastructure system. This computer's battery can be powered and recharged by a hand-crank if a plug isn't available.

The extremely tight focus of the Sugar project has a key underlying goal that guided Strausfeld and her colleagues: to make the interface as accessible as possible. This sense of focus reflects Strausfeld's signature approach to tackling design problems, which she labels "relentlessness." As she explains, "I favor 'relentlessness' in design. We focus on one idea that's strong and flexible. In any single project, we want to carry through that singular focus and not be deflected or distracted by other smaller ideas."

The Strong Idea Strategy

When asked to describe how this concept works in practice, Strausfeld explains that the key is to create a structure for design processes. "A key benefit of a 'relentless' design approach is that it defines its own rules. And rule-based design can be encoded, which is important for our technology-based work," she says. "It also works well when multiple people are working on a project. A strong idea, an idea with legs, is strong conceptually—and can be more easily communicated and carried out by a group."

This vision has already informed her work with Gallup, which reflects another aspect of her multidisciplinary approach to design: to select projects that wield data and use design in socially responsible ways, namely to encourage transparency and education. "It's exciting to have access to such rich data [at Gallup]. The goal is to represent it visually in the most engaging way," Strausfeld says. "It's inspiring to work with visionaries who have the ambition to change—and improve—the world."

Click here to view sample of Strausfeld's work.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.