Web Design Case Study: Data Visualization

Founded in 2001, the San Francisco company has designed creative interactive sites including Digg Arc, Crimespotting, and Cabspotting

"Someone once described what we do as 'Web design that doesn't suck'," says Stamen founder and creative director Eric Rodenbeck, with a laugh.

From the looks of his company's growing corporate client list, those in the business of commissioning Web sites agree with him. Stamen, which Rodenbeck founded in San Francisco in 2001, has worked with the likes of Yahoo! (YHOO) and Schwab (SCHW), has an ongoing relationship with BMW's (BMW) Designworks division, for which they created an internal, online collaboration tool allowing workers to share project information. More recently, they worked with Digg.com, for which they created Digg Labs, making animated images that illustrate what news stories users find interesting.

The Digg Arc element of Digg Labs made its debut last year. The eye-popping app is a dynamic, fresh way of presenting how people consume information online—and what sorts of news they find most interesting. The title of a story—for instance, the recent "$4 Gas Makes Hybrids Worth the Money"— posted on a variety of online sites is centered in the middle of a circle that pops up against a black background. Around the title, in the form of ray-like lines, appear the screen names of readers who "digg," or vote to share, the story. More popular stories have more rays, which appear in vivid hues. The story-sharing is updated constantly, so the arcs grow.

Animated Databases and Crime Maps

It's just one example of Stamen's attempts to nudge Web site visitors to explore data on their own, interactive terms. Rodenbeck calls it "exploratory navigation." The hope is it will encourage users to take an intuitive, adventurous approach to finding information, rather than following a prescribed path.

Shawn Allen, the company's design technologist and another of Stamen's three partners (Michal Migurski, the company's director of technology, is the third), cites a book filled with maps of Alberta, Canada, circa 1976 as recent inspiration. He hopes to translate his own wonder at the elegance of the paper images into an onscreen experience of ongoing online projects. These include an animated version of a database of sale and rental properties for real estate company Trulia, and Crimespotting, which presents a map of constantly updated data on murders, robberies, and other crimes in Oakland, Calif.

That's not to say that Stamen doesn't have a well-defined design strategy. Allen says their use of the Helvetica typeface, a famously easy-to-read font used by such diverse companies as 3M (MMM) and American Apparel (APP), is one thing Stamen returns to again and again. Stamen used it in Digg Labs, for instance. "This gets rid of a decision. We want the most clear and obvious way to communicate the information," Allen says.

Commercial Companies Come Calling

How do they test their designs for usability? Michal Migurski says the partners and staff simply ask themselves on a regular basis if they are "still animated by our own interest" in a Web site both during the process of creating it and again once it's completed. "We trust what's interesting will become apparent and take care of usability issues." They avoid lengthy, complicated, and often costly beta tests, Migurski says, and trust their own judgment both as Web site users and experienced designers.

If this attitude seems somewhat laissez-faire, consider Stamen's business-development approach. The staff is encouraged to pursue research projects in the form of noncommercial Web sites, such as the Cabspotting site created for San Francisco's Exploratorium museum, which plots San Francisco taxi activity on a screen, tracked by GPS. Then, they wait for commercial companies, as well as governmental agencies, to come to them. Digg's founder, Kevin Rose, for example, approached Stamen in 2006 after noticing and enjoying a number of their projects online.

This might seem a hands-off way of drumming up business, but, Rodenbeck says, it helps ensure a good match. It's a means to make sure they communicate well with clients who understand their design sensibility, and, of course, to create Web sites that don't suck.

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