Imagine that data about Medicare costs or the pileup of national debt could be as cool and compelling as an iPhone app or a killer interactive graphic on ESPN.com. Would more people pay attention? Would it change the debate? Would we make better decisions?
“I’d love to do a project making government activity a spectator sport,” says Lisa Strausfeld, late one summer afternoon in the Manhattan offices of Pentagram, where she’s a partner specializing in information-focused design. “If we could be as obsessive with government data as we are with baseball stats, maybe it would change the form of democracy.”
A wisp of a woman with a soft, tentative way of speaking, Strausfeld hardly fits the image of a wrangler capable of taming beastly chunks of data. But in fact she has an extraordinary capacity for structuring and displaying information. “She’s a natural to work on transforming the infinite depths of data about our urban environment into patterns that reveal other patterns,” says TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, who got to know Strausfeld during her days at the MIT Media Lab. “She’d be on my chart of the top information architects. She’ll be a formidable figure.”
The Interactive Installations
Strausfeld, 44, did not seek out her strange perch at the top of design’s geekiest subculture. Growing up in central New Jersey, one of a set of twin daughters of an ob-gyn and an urban planner, she wanted to be an architect. At Brown, she majored in art history and computer science, giving her an odd-but-useful combination of skills, one she took with her into the architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. There, Strausfeld learned a rigorous process for taking an idea from conception to final result. “I learned what to do in the middle,” she says, “and that training really helps me to this day.”
The architectural process, she says, relies on conventional forms of representation: the plan, an ascension, elevations, and models. With Web design, her challenge is to invent a similar process with wire-frame diagrams. For each project, she says, she has to figure out the process anew. “It’s not a formula. It has to be invented each time.” Often, she says, “the first step is to take all the content and imagine that it lives in one space.” Sometimes she dumps all the content into one view, or prints it all out, allowing her to see all the information at a glance. Unlike most traditional Web design, which starts with a top-down hierarchy, Strausfeld prefers to design from the bottom up, pulling the most relevant data to the top.
That’s now. But back in 1991, it looked as though all of Strausfeld’s fancy architectural learning would be for naught. Graduating into the midst of a severe recession, she headed (“for love”) to Austin. After weeks building models for $10 an hour, she remembers floating on a raft in a swimming pool and realizing she still couldn’t pay the rent. A few days later, she picked up the phone, called a recruiter at Motorola, and accepted a job offer to do layout design for memory chips. Then she wept.
It was an inauspicious start to a brilliant career. Her shyness often kept her from asking questions, but she taught herself the job from various manuals and brushed off the programming skills she’d acquired at Brown. “I just got back into it and fell in love again,” she says. The Internet was in its infancy; the Web was a germ of an idea.
Two years later, still in denial that she was leaving architecture, she applied to MIT’s Media Lab, reminding herself that founder Nicholas Negroponte, himself an architect, had originally called it the Architecture Machine Group. It was there she met Muriel Cooper, cofounder of the Visible Language Workshop, whom the International Herald Tribune called “the unsung heroine of on-screen style.” Cooper died of a heart attack a year into Strausfeld’s stint, but their relationship was so transformative for Strausfeld that she later named her daughter Muriel.
Cooper could barely work a mouse, Strausfeld says, and insisted that her students focus on the experience of the design rather than on the underlying code. “Muriel forbade technology discussions at the Media Lab,” Strausfeld says. “She insisted they be taken into another room.”
Cooper’s mantra was that good design is good design, regardless of the medium, a position Strausfeld has shared with her current colleagues. “I don’t like technology because I don’t like to talk about technology,” says Pentagram partner Paula Scher. “As soon as somebody says ‘Flash’ or ‘HTML,’ I don’t want to have the discussion. But what Lisa told me about Muriel was spectacular. Now I can avoid that discussion because it’s no more relevant than knowing how color separations work.”
It took the rest of the world quite a while to catch up with Cooper’s insight. Meanwhile, Strausfeld and her digitally adept peers benefited from the generalized anxiety most clients felt about Web design. “I was given many design opportunities because of my knowledge of the medium,” she says. “In the end, all we were doing was design. Clients were most insecure about the technology; they should have been most insecure about the design.”
In 1996, Strausfeld and two MIT classmates launched a software company in San Francisco called Perspecta. Essentially, Perspecta scanned large collections of documents and pulled out keywords or topics to build a dynamic hierarchy–an automated form of the tagging system Internet developer Thomas Vander Wal dubbed “folksonomy”. It so impressed Negroponte that he became an early investor. “I lost all my investment, and yet I do not look back at the experience other than fondly,” Negroponte says, via email. “That speaks for itself.”
Perspecta was eventually bought by Excite@Home and Strausfeld moved on to Quokka Sports, an online sports-entertainment company, where she mined data from live events to create immer-sive experiences. She wasn’t a huge sports fan, but the job gave her the chance to focus on data visualization as entertainment. “I realized I wanted to design products that I would use,” she says.
While attending a design conference in 2000, Strausfeld sat next to Pentagram partner Michael Bierut at a speakers’ dinner. She had no idea who Bierut was but mentioned that she wanted to move beyond digital expressions of design to do more work in the real world. As it happened, Bierut was working on the renovation of New York’s Penn Station with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and needed someone to design a large media wall display. A compromise, perhaps, but one she could live with.
A project or two later, Pentagram invited Strausfeld, who by now had moved to New York, to be a partner. Her digital chops were obviously a draw, says Scher, but that was only part of the story. “She’s trained as an architect and has a totally analytical take on the organization of information,” she says. “I’m much more instinctual. Our completely opposite ways of using the brain have made projects much richer.” The two women collaborated on the identity and information display for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Bloomberg’s Manhattan headquarters. Over the years, Strausfeld has amassed a stunning body of work, including the award-winning user interface for Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child computer, “The Art of Dining” installation for the Detroit Institute of Arts, and a Web site for architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. But the world has changed, Strausfeld says, and so has she. Clients are less intimidated by technology–and her own expertise has grown: “Pentagram has been an amazing education for me in terms of design that I wasn’t that comfortable with. But I’m comfortable now… It’s time to reassert my own identity within Pentagram. I’m on the verge of creating a new script.”
That new narrative seems to be taking shape. A redesign of Gallup’s Web site, a new World Bank commission, a gig doing the media program for the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Study of the Senate–all bring her closer to what her long-ago mentor, Cooper, felt were important projects. “Muriel was not interested in entertainment-oriented work,” Strausfeld says. “She wanted to do hard-core information design work with DARPA, financial-services companies, newspapers, really challenging information problems. I’d like more of those projects.”
A trip to the White House in July as a finalist in interaction design at the National Design Awards–a new category this year–seems likely to bring them to her. “With this administration, Washington is sexier,” she says. “The opportunity is there now to look at the experience of the data. I’m not sure how to do it, but it’s time for me to jump into the fray.”